BY ALTUG CAKMAKCI
Toronto-based Altug Cakmakci is the author of two novels in Turkish. Copyright rests with the author.
I AM NOT a troubled kid. There were times I had my doubts, but Ma settled that once and for all.
“You are not a troubled kid, Jason,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron. “You hear me? You’re a nice young man.”
Just like that, and I felt all right. If I suspected something else about myself, I would ask her again. Not Dad. No. She’s the one you go to if you want answers — real answers. Like, if you’re looking for scissors and you can explain to her what you want to do with those scissors, she would just say where the scissors are — even without stepping a foot outside the kitchen. Talking at the top of her lungs, she would guide you through the hallway to the room where Ma and Dad used to sleep, and finally to the top drawer of the bureau where you would find the scissors. But if you asked Dad — oh, boy. He would either say he didn’t know where the hell the scissors were or just send you to the wrong place and you’d end up searching the whole house. Dad’s not a bad guy, don’t get me wrong. But if you like an immediate answer, Ma is your guy.
Take last summer, for example. Little Frank had two cousins visiting from out of town. They were mean boys, real mean. Little Frank’s not my best buddy, but we spend time together now and then. He tells me that he can reason with me easier than most of his other friends, even though I’m twice as big as him — nearly everyone is twice as big as him. He has this disease, this condition, and if the baby Jesus who’s hanging over the fireplace in their living room does not help, he won’t be taller than a barber’s pole. Anyways, he had these two boys as guests for a couple of weeks last summer. We hung out together, played along the railway, maybe picked a few apples from Mrs. Swindon’s trees — those apple trees are a dime a dozen, you should see them. Nothing went wrong, I swear. Nothing. And, out of the blue, one of the boys calls me “retarded” and the other one spits on the ground looking at me while Little Frank tells them to leave me alone. I didn’t know what retarded meant back then, but by looking at Little Frank’s face I could tell it was not something nice, not something fitting. I ran back and asked Ma. She told me that I was nothing like that and asked me why I was crying. I didn’t say anything. She asked a few times, shaking me gently. I didn’t say anything again. Then she asked:
“Did you hurt any of these boys?”
Well… You can’t lie to Ma — Dad, maybe, but never to Ma. She’ll know — just like she knows where the scissors are. Simple as that.
Dad fixes broken cars, but that’s not his real job. Fixing cars is something he has to do while he secretly works on his inventions. Yeah. My Dad’s an inventor. Ma yelled at him when he turned the garage in to his inventor’s workshop, but you’ve got to see the place. There’s a lot of good stuff in the garage: a turning machine that smells of rust; a broken mill with three arms; 10s of oil canisters in one corner; a metal box full of bolts, studs, and nails; a welding torch, which I’m not allowed to touch anymore; and what not. When Dad disappeared on Sunday afternoons, both Ma and I knew that he was in the garage. Hearing Ma grumble, I would sneak in to the invention room and find Dad sitting on a canister, smoking.
“Why don’t Ma like you working here?” I would ask him.
“’Cause your Ma thinks it is not a job if you don’t get any money out of it,” he would reply. “Your Ma is exact in her economics.”
“But you’re gonna make money out of the inventions, right Dad?”
“Sure, Jason.” He would smile. “Now get me that torque wrench, and let’s see what we can do with this beauty.”
The thing he called a beauty was a box with wires coming out of it on both ends, something looking more like a broken toy car than a life changing invention. But all his machines were the same. All incomplete, always.
“It’s like cooking,” he would explain. “You don’t cook your meals in a row but at the same time. You boil your potatoes in a pot while you cook your soup in another. Inventions are the same. I work on different ones at the same time. They all evolve slowly and God knows, if one of these beauties work, we become rich.”
Almost everything Dad did while Ma was not around was marked as a secret. If I saw him drinking gin from a tiny flat metal bottle that would be our little secret. Or if I caught him sneaking a 20 from the cookie jar, which actually never had cookies in that would be our biggest secret ever. Of course, he did all of it for the sake of his inventions. You know, if he could sell even one of his inventions, we we’d be rich, buy anything we liked from the superstore, and travel to Mexico or someplace where the weather is nice year-round.
Dad worked on Saturdays. He got up early and drove his truck to the other end of town where there are no houses, but only repair shops, places that collect old cars and used worn tires, and a huge plant, and where it smells like burned gas all day long. There he had a small place, as dirty as the other shops around it. Any given day, you’d see at least three or four broken cars parked at the entrance of his shop. Some of these cars were parked for ages. Even their tires looked like they had merged with the ground underneath, like a tree spreads its roots in to the earth it stands upon. Once I asked him why he didn’t fix those cars — there could be someone looking forward to driving each of those dirty cars. He told me to shut up and mind my own business. Then he got so upset that he had said “shut up” to me that he offered me the sandwich I had brought him for lunch. I took one half of it and listened to him while he spoke about priorities. He really wanted me to understand how real life was unstable, not as Ma pictures, but rather with ups and downs, and unexpected incidents, and changing urgencies. And I really wanted to understand what he meant when he started explaining that uncertainty was not a bad thing and that sometimes it was even useful and profitable, but I was hopeless. I had to stop him. I raised my hand and said:
“Dad, you can fix which ever car you want. This is your place.”
He laughed at me and said, “You’re damn right.” We both laughed.
The best thing about Dad’s working on Saturdays was we could have a good laugh once in a while.
If you visit our town, you can stop at the pastry shop, next to St. Paul’s Church on Main Street. The pastry shop is the only place in town that sells delicious carrot muffins. The owner of the shop, Mrs. Fullers, is a close friend of Ma’s form the Church. One day she asked if Ma could bake carrot muffins for her pastry shop. Mrs. Fullers said she would pay Ma half the money she makes on those muffins. Ma agreed to bake the muffins, but she preferred to be paid 15 cents a piece, not half of God knows what kind of sales. It was a deal. So Ma baked carrot muffins every Tuesday and Friday for 15 cents a piece. Mrs. Fullers sold the muffins for 75 cents and even I could calculate that half of 75 cents was much more than15 cents.
But Ma said: “Fifteen cents is a fair price. Besides I know how much I’m going to make once I put them in the oven.” And she added that I’d better not steal from the batch unless I have 15 cents to pay for a one.
Ma was the one who managed the money business in our house. Every Sunday, Dad would give Ma all he earned from the shop, swearing to Holy Mary, Her Holy Son and the Holy Father that that was all he had in his pocket. Seeing Dad act like a hungry dog that goes from door to door, its tail tucked between its legs, I once had the courage to ask Ma why she behaved like that, why she didn’t let Dad spend the money he earned.
“That’s not only his money, Jason,” she said, her tone remind me of our science teacher Mrs. Williams, self-assured and credible. “We help him earn that money for all of us. And that money should be spent for the sake of everyone in this house, not to buy liquor or other things that attract sin.”
“Then, at least you can let him buy the groceries.”
“What? Groceries? I cannot let anyone who does not know the price of an egg, do the shopping, honey. And, don’t you worry. I’ve got everything under control, fair and square.”
“Say, Ma, if the money we earn belongs to everyone in this house, why do you put the carrot muffin money in a jar?”
Now, she sounded nothing like Mrs. Williams — much more like Mr. Borrows at gym. Running to my room, I heard her scream after me words that she’d never utter in the presence of a reverend. I closed the door after me. When I finally came back to the kitchen for dinner, I saw her holding a knife, her face crimson. She turned back to the table where Dad sat smoking, and, whimpering, started to slice the loaf of bread. Right away I understood that she was not mad at me anymore. Dad and Ma must have had one of those quarrels, or conflicts as Dad more elegantly puts it. She didn’t speak to him during dinner and the only thing she said to me was to finish everything on my plate. Nothing was for free. She had paid 60 cents for a pound of those beans that I was pushing around with my spoon.
Aunt Aoife came for a visit the week before Halloween. She arrived, wearing a long black skirt with silver stripes and a red shirt with puffy shoulders under a long black coat, making her look like a monster on the outside, and just like the Spanish dancer on the olive oil cans on the inside. Her black veil was wrapped around her long hair unevenly — making me wonder if her hair had been done by the butcher at the end of Corel Street. The wrapping style reminded me of the way the butcher wraps meat in wax paper. Ma never enjoyed her visits, so Ma just made some tea and told Aunt Aoife that, unfortunately, we had nothing but a few peanut butter cookies. If she had known Aunt Aoife was coming, she would have baked some stuff and cooked her a delicious meal, which I truly doubt.
But Aunt Aoife said: “Oh, dear. I rang Derry. Didn’t he tell you about my visit?”
I expected Ma to answer: “I’m sure you know what an idiot your brother is. He does nothing more than fix rusted cars, and he forgets anything not related to smoking, drinking, or spending his time locked in a garage.”
But instead she said: “He must have forgotten. He is kind of busy nowadays.”
Aunt Aoife smiled, and so did Ma. They sat silently for a long while, until Aunt Aoife remembered me and commented about how tall I’ve become.
“My father was a tall man,” Aunt Aoife said. “So was his father. It runs in the family.”
Ma nodded and bowed her head. I, again, expected her to reply that Dad was not that tall. So I must take after her side of the family not his. Then I remembered that Ma did not know who her real father was. She had good reason to shut up and look down at our dirty carpet while Aunt Aoife went on and on about her family history.
I know most kids love their aunts. But, I think, those aunts must be real generous to us kids — real generous indeed if they look, smell and talk like Aunt Aoife.
Despite how Aunt Aoife kept making spontaneous sarcastic remarks until Dad arrived, I can certainly state that everything went smooth, at least until the end of the dinner, when everyone was drinking linden tea and eating a carrot muffin from the latest batch, at a total cost of 60 cents.
Some people say that at birth your mind in a blank state. As you live, you fill it with things you experience, learn and read about. But I guess it must work the other way round for certain people. God hands them a brain at birth. It’s full to the top, with every kind of information you need to have an easy life and these people spend their lives emptying their brains, spilling knowledge, wisdom and intelligence from all the holes in their heads. Needless to say, Aunt Aoife was one of those people who came to earth with a pre-filled brain but would leave with an empty canister.
“This muffin is delicious, darling,” Aunt Aoife said looking at Ma like Ma didn’t know this already. “Your carrot muffin is a delight.”
Tilting her head a bit, Ma tried to act like a shy girl.
“Derry is a lucky man,” Aunt Aoife said. “A fine husband, also… You two, you have no idea how lucky you are.”
I looked around the house or as much as I could see of it from the chair I was sitting on. As I already knew them by heart, I did not need to look at every piece of furniture we owned. But when you hear a comment like that, you immediately assume that there is something wrong with your eyesight and other people are capable of seeing things better than you do. Still, nothing seemed special to me.
“You have a fine marriage,” Aunt Aoife explained further. “All these years and counting.” She sighed. “You should see how things are back in our town. So many marriages gone wrong, so many homes shattered.” She leaned forward, a few inches closer to the centre of the table. “Speaking of which,” she said, whispering. “Do you remember Brigitte from high school?” Aunt Aoife asked Dad, though the question seemed to include Ma as well.
“What about her?” Dad asked.
“Her husband left her. Poor thing,” she said, making a sour face at Ma, who didn’t change her expression or even blink, and who knew very well that Dad and this Brigitte had had a thing in high school long before Dad met Ma. “Just before I left, I had tea with her. She was so desperate. Poor thing.”
If you had seen Ma, sitting at one end of the table, her face dull, her left hand supporting her head as if to stop herself from smashing her head on the table, her eyes right on Aunt Aoife, you would know that she couldn’t care less what this Brigitte woman felt.
“And she said hello to you,” Aunt Aoife said to Dad.
“Yeah,” Dad said and shut up as if ’yeah’ was a complete sentence and it had the depth to illustrate all his sincere feelings towards the subject.
No one said anything else. Ma looked like she wasn’t going to talk again until at least the end of the year. Dad was daydreaming, I guess. His eyes were unfocused and when you caught them with your own eyes, you had the feeling that he wasn’t really looking at you. And as for Aunt Aoife, she had said what she wanted to and it would be much better for her to shut up for the rest of the visit.
Aunt Aoife left on Monday. After that, Ma and Dad completely stopped talking at the dinner table. I had too much homework to deal with, so I spent my time in my room, studying. I didn’t realize that Dad wasn’t around until Saturday evening when Ma told me that he had left early that morning on a business trip. When she told me that he was supposed to come back Sunday night she started crying. I stood looking at her, waited for a minute or so, and then I hugged her like she used to hug me — tight to her chest — when I was less than half of what I am now. She wept for a long time.
Dad arrived on Monday morning. They didn’t sleep in the same bed after that. Dad bought a grey couch from a yard sale, covered it with an old blanket, and put the couch in the garage. To make room for the couch he had to move a few things around, but in the end the place looked tidier because he packed some of his inventions in card boxes and placed on the shelves.
If Ma has a close friend, she sure is Carol. Carol works at a beauty salon and polishes the nails of woman who are either too busy or too clumsy to polish their own nails. The job is quite easy for her, as she is an expert in nails. She must have painted hers different shades of red a millions times or even more. Besides, the job allows her to display her second best ability next to polishing nails: Talking all day long and collecting all the gossip available out there. This talking and listening habit is not a bad thing after all. It comes in handy in a situation like Ma was in after she asked Dad to sleep in the garage or go to hell if he preferred. That Monday morning, right after shouting at Dad and waiting for him to drive off, Ma called Carol. I had to leave for school, but when I came back in the afternoon Ma was still on the phone. Seeing me, Ma dropped the receiver and went to the kitchen to cook. An hour later Carol arrived and she didn’t leave. She had dinner with us, and breakfast. She went shopping with Ma, helped her cook and set the table. Meanwhile, she was talking to Ma, nonstop, about relationships, men, marriages, and what-not.
I felt miserable the day Ma started smoking. She was not very fond of cigarettes. That I know because, at times, I heard her saying that there is nothing fancy about holding a burning stick in front of your nose. Also, as Dad was an expert smoker, she always accused him of smelling bad — like a pig that smokes. I remember her lighting a cigarette the day I broke my arm in kindergarten and the doctor told her that there was a possibility that I would not be able to use my right hand properly. But that didn’t happen and I hadn’t seen Ma smoke since, that is until Carol offered her a cigarette and Ma sucked it like a baby calf sucks from her mother. Something was terribly wrong, and you didn’t have to be living in our house for eternity to realize it.
You’re probably assuming that Dad was in the garage, grieving. Well, you’re wrong. Each time I stepped in the garage, carrying his dinner plate and a thick slice of bread on a tray, I would either find him smoking, listening to the radio or working on his inventions.
“I never had so much spare time to work on my inventions,” he said, grinning. “Living in the garage turns out to be advantageous for me.”
“I thought you’d be upset,” I said. “After fighting with Ma, and all.”
“Jason, Jason, Jason. I didn’t fight with your mother, son. It’s just a misunderstanding and we’re settling it like two civilized people.”
“Ma says she doesn’t want to see your face anymore.”
“And you believe that? Come on Jason, think. She’s just upset… No, not upset, just confused. She’ll come around, don’t worry. Won’t see my face! Jesus!” Dad smiled holding the cigarette still at the corner of his lips like a proficient smoker.
Next Saturday morning they had another argument, louder and longer than the one before. Getting a few bills from the cookie jar, Dad rushed to his truck and drove off. Meanwhile Ma cursed constantly, and if God had heard half of what she said, Dad would have had no chance of living to see his next birthday. He didn’t show up before Monday morning, and arrived to see that his couch had been moved out of the garage and onto the driveway, and left there under heavy rain. He waved his hand towards the window from which I was watching him. For one second he looked like he would rush into our house and fight with Ma, but the next second he started to act like he was prohibited by a judge to be within hundred yards of our place. I waved back and he left soon after.
We ate peanut butter sandwiches for dinner for three days in a row. I don’t remember anything about the days that I was a toddler and was fed by Ma, but ever since I was allowed to use a spoon myself I remember Ma cooking something nice for dinner. After Dad left for good, she took a break from cooking, I guess. We also found out that Carol was not really dying to cook either. She said she was the type of girl who likes ready-to-eat stuff as she was more of a person who serves the meal than prepares it. Ma didn’t mind the peanut butter sandwiches, as she didn’t eat much at all, but only drank coffee. With the help of caffeine and Carol, Ma stayed awake for long hours talking about the most miserable things in life. The two women discussed issues more skillfully than those well-dressed men do on TV during presidential debates. Before the next Sunday, she had already made up her mind to get a divorce. The crucial issue was to find the best lawyer out there who would not charge more than $60 for the whole process.
I said Dad left for good. Well, I was lying a little bit. I was able to see him from time to time. Every other day, he came to pick me up from school and we would walk for 10 minutes and talk. I always asked him if he was doing good or not. He told me that he could not be better. He had rented a room at Mrs. Schaup’s house and it was practically for free. If we each rented a room from Mrs. Schaup and sold our house, we would be rich. I told him that this was not a good idea to share with Ma, especially when all her prayers were for sending Dad straight to hell.
“I think she’s going to divorce you,” I said to Dad. Hearing this from me would be better for him, as Ma would add a few curses in between her sentences while telling Dad.
“What makes you think that?” Dad asked.
“I heard her say it.”
“Say that she’ll either divorce you or kill you.”
“That woman,” Dad said, shaking his head. “She is something. Don’t you think?”
“She talked to a lawyer, Dad. It seems serious.”
He frowned and waved his hand around like he was beating off a mosquito close to his face.
“Don’t worry, Jason. She might be mad now, but she won’t act. That is something else, a more serious level.”
The lawyer’s office smelt like rosehip and fried onions mixed together. The office had four leather chairs, which seemed to be bought ages ago, like right after WWII, in the waiting room and two more that were facing his expensive looking desk in his room. The lawyer was wearing a bowtie, and was speaking very gently to Ma as he described the way things will shape up once Ma signs the divorce papers. There was one drawback though. The guy had a hard time speaking like regular people do. He kept using legal terms, which sounded like scientific terms to my ears. Nevertheless, Ma was nodding, though I was sure as hell that she didn’t understand anymore than I did.
I sat there, feeling alone, sick and forgotten. It was like an eternity. If every step of the divorce process had gone in the same speed, Dad and Ma would not be divorced before both hit hundred. Then, all of a sudden, I heard my name repeated.
“Jason,” the lawyer said moving closer to me.
“Yes,” I answered.
“I see that you are a grown up man. Please let me tell you that you are our primary concern here. Both your parents want you to be happy and come out of this case harmed the least.”
“I want you to know that you will have several options… to choose from.”
I nodded again.
Once, at school, our English teacher, Mr. Robbins, wrote down something an important man once said on the blackboard and asked us to write a story about it. The important man’s name was John Locke. I read the things he said a couple of times but I still didn’t understand them. Then Little Frank tried to explain it to me. Well, all he did was to read the same thing very slowly to me. I thanked him. I had a few ideas in mind. Maybe more than a few.
The saying goes like this: “Suppose a man born blind, and now adult, and taught by his touch to distinguish between a cube and a sphere of the same metal, and nighly of the same bigness, so as to tell, when he felt one and the other, which is the cube, which the sphere. Suppose then the cube and sphere placed on a table, and the blind man be made to see: quaere, whether by his sight, before he touched them, he could now distinguish and tell which is the globe, which the cube?”