Mom and baby Liz, at a playground near Riverside Drive, on the west side of Manhattan. Betty comes twice, three times a year to see her granddaughter.
"Okay, smile!" Tommy says.
"Come on, Liz. Let's see a smile now. Just for daddy."
Betty and Tommy don't ever talk about the past, because it's better left alone. Too many painful memories. Water under the bridge.
But he thinks about it all the time. Maybe she does too.
The light glints off her glasses. Which seem too big for her face.
Twenty years ago. Remember?
Her glasses reflected the bright light of the window, hiding her eyes.
"What's wrong?" she said.
"I've committed a terrible crime," Tommy said, dramatically lowering his head and pinching the bridge of his nose with the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
"What crime?" she asked.
"A truly awful and horrible crime. The violation of an ancient tribal taboo."
"I'm a usurper."
"Oh, for Christ's sake Tommy quit talking bullshit!"
He looked at her, took in the full weight of her annoyance.
"My father is in the hospital," he said. "Two broken ribs. And I did it."
"Because he was drunk and he attacked me. Three times. He threw a bottle right at my head. Then he charged. Twice. I was defending myself."
"Two broken ribs?"
"Yes. He has the bones of a bird. I threw him against the kitchen cabinet as easily as you'd toss a dead sparrow. He has no substance at all."
"Oh, my God."
Was she holding back a smile?
"When you were married to him, mom, didn't you just get sick of being threatened?" Tommy said. "I'll bet you always had to watch what you did or said, because you just never knew what would set him off. Isn't that why you left us?"
Betty shook her head. "You've been drinking."
"Yes, I've been drinking. But I need to tell you something."
"In that courtroom I lied when I told the judge I wanted to live with my father. He got Monsignor Clandillon to make me say what I did. I had no choice, Monsignor said. No moral choice."
"I know. Caroline told me what happened."
"I wanted so much to live with you."
"I know, Tommy. But that's water under the bridge. That was then, this is now. You're a grownup."
"I hated living with that abusive drunk. I always thought maybe he wasn't my real father. But you told me once that you knew exactly the day and hour that I was conceived. In the back seat of a Ford, you said, in the driveway of your mother's house."
"Why should I stop? I need to tell you everything."
"No. That's all in the past. And you're over-dramatizing everything, as if you're the only one in the world who's been hurt. Besides, you're drunk. Just like your father."
"Don't say that. I'm nothing like him, goddamn it."
"I'm sorry, Tommy. But right now you're exactly like him. Go home. When you're sober, we'll talk."
On the sidewalk he looked back at the window. He hoped to see her parting those lace curtains, beckoning him to return, so he could tell her everything that was in his melodramatic, aching heart.
But the curtains remained motionless.
* * *
Tommy pushed his bike up a grassy hill, a weeping young Sisyphus laboring in Hades. From a distance came repeated musical phrases, of a calliope, ta-ra-ra-BOOM-te-aye! Each phrase the elements of a chord, four repeated chords. The third almost an accented dissonance, leading to a resolution.
Yes. Active to tonic--a promise made, a promise kept.
In Beethoven's music there are a multitude of promises made, promises kept. Always. Unlike all the others this man never, ever, lets you down.
The scent of damp earth, straw, manure. The murmuring of a crowd. A tatoo of military drums, a sounding gong. Castanets. He surveyed the vast pointed-top tents, the banners streaming, the yellow ropes, ship's ropes, anchored to the earth with round-topped metal stakes, each set at a brash, arrogant, self-confident angle.
Milling, surging crowds. Roar of lions, trumpeting of elephants, the howling of apes.
Tommy speeds down the grassy hill, past the wheeled cages, and into the crowd, weaving. Past the side shows. Tiny Tim. The Two Headed Woman. The saccharine scent of cotton candy, candied apples, French fries, hot dogs, kraut.
He pedals right into the main tent. Pumps those pedals, wheels past those clowns with the big shoes. Up the pole, up, up, up...a gasp from the crowd as they witness a most spectacular feat.
Tommy pedals to the top of the pole, makes a hard right. The Wallendas are out there on the wire, a multi-layered family tree, the youngest at the top, a pale-faced girl, erect on a chair supported by all the rest. Their balance poles dip violently and tremble. Tommy pedals his bike hard, further out onto the wire, and, with much shouting and clamor all around, he knocks them off.
The great construction of bodies collapses and each falls expertly backward into the net, feet pointed up. In unison they bounce once, all of them in perfect synchronization. They seize the edge of the net and flip neatly into a somersault, then down on their feet on the ground.
Tommy pedals across the wire to the opposite platform, and then straight down the mast. The crowd roars. A little girl gurgles her delight. Her mother's eyes are adoring, liquid, approving. Tommy raises both hands and circles the middle ring in a victory lap.
"Look, ma, no hands!" he shouts.
Meanwhile, a company of red-jacketed, white-trousered Marines march silently in a precise, tight formation. Passing in Review. They approach the box of the Commander in Chief. The President of the United States stands at attention, saluting the colors.
The company's officer shouts out: "Company, halt! Right...HUH!" They raise their weapons, hold them steady.
The President's head disappears in a pink plume.
Meanwhile, horses thunder around the ring, each one with a shoeless rider, bent-kneed, leaning into the radius of the turns. Breasts bouncing. One of them with a hole in her net stockings, revealing white flesh.
In the cage, the tamer, whip in a big loop held away from his body, inserts his head into the jaws of the oldest, scruffiest-maned lion, who with a devilish wink chomps down hard and instantly crushes that poor trusting man's skull.
The Impresario rushes forth, dispatches the lion with a shot from a chrome plated .38 revolver. He delivers the coup de grace with a deft thrust of a Nazi Officer's dagger into the lion's heart. Blood gushes forth, stains the wood chips, seeps into the damp earth beneath.
The crowd disperses, idly chatting.
The sun dips behind orange-tinged purple clouds. The circus company gathers, murmurs, waits. Dwarfs, grunting, place a sheet of 3/4 inch plywood upon the tops of four barrels.
Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al-Thani, emir of Qatar, mounts the platform. It was HE who overthrew his father, Sheik Khalifa ibn Hamad al-Thani, in a crafty, bloodless coup. HE is now the top dog, and delivers his speech with great earnestness and determination.
"God is great," the sheik shouts.
The wind picks up his white robe, lifts it in a billow. Black garters hold up his black socks. He pulls his robe down, modestly. He continues: "You all know the performance tonight was not a success. But never mind. We must move on. Tomorrow is another day."
"Another day, another town," the crowd says.
"But you must be careful," the sheik cautions. "Listen to me, all of you. You must fold the canvas neatly, and stow it in the proper boxes. The ropes must be coiled in perfect loops. The stakes must be placed head to toe, alternating, into their containers. Do you understand?"
The crowd murmurs. "We understand. We understand."
"The way of the Bedouin," the sheik exclaims. "Pack the tent and accouterments properly. Attend most carefully to these details. It is the journey that matters, not the destination."
"Yes, the destination," the crowd shouts.
Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al-Thani, emir of Qatar, smiles. "God is great," he says.
"Oh, yes!" the crowd shouts. "God IS great."
* * *
Tommy opens the drawer to the left of the sink. Two and a half dozen cockroaches scurry for cover. He finds the old butcher knife lying alongside the greasy plastic tray that contains a rusty potato peeler, several ladles, a narrow spatula, spoons, forks, screwdrivers, pliers, a dusty roll of black electrician's tape.
He sits down on the stool in the corner, and examines the knife.
The house is empty, silent. The knife's handle is cracked, its flat-headed brass rivets have long ago lost their sheen. The blade is narrow, eight or nine inches long. The steel of the blade is dark-colored, mottled. But it still has a point, and its edge is sharp.
Maybe his grandmother, when she was alive, had used this knife to cut bread. There were lots of things in that house that she'd probably used. Big, dark blue speckled pots in the basement. A funny looking washing machine with an awkward wringer attachment.
She probably used this knife the time she lopped off the head of a chicken. He was about four or five years old, but he remembered her deft, decisive movement, the flash of the blade, the spurting of crimson, and that chicken running across the floor, headless. Later the smell of singed feathers, of the steam from boiling water.
Tommy grasps the handle with both hands, holds the blade pointing toward his chest. He lightly rests the point on his sternum, and envisions himself falling forward, holding that knife in place so that on impact the floor will drive the knife home.
If he does it right, death will be quick. Won't it? That's the way its shown in the movies and on TV. When a guy gets stabbed in the chest he drops instantly, is dead before he hits the ground. A matter of seconds.
He is ready. Ready right now. He rises.
Loud pounding in his chest. Rapid shallow breaths, in and out. A tingling in his arms. A light-headedness, a nauseating sensation of things rushing along too quickly.
Okay. He'll hold himself very stiff, then fall forward, and the impact with the floor will surely drive that knife through his sternum and into his heart.
How thick is his sternum? Could it possibly stop the progress of the knife?
No, probably not.
They'll find him on the floor in a pool of blood. His father won't be able to take it. Like at Uncle Alec's funeral, he'll fall apart. Bawling. Like a little baby.
When she finds out Joan will gasp, put her slender bony fingers to her mouth and faint away. She'll regret not being receptive to his ranting and raving, all the torment in his heart that he tried so hard to express, to make her understand. She'll kneel at his coffin, with a rosary in her hand, and whisper her Hail Marys. Her eyes will turn upward to heaven, and she'll pray for this poor wretched soul's salvation.
Tommy stands, frozen.
Honk of a horn out on the street. Rushing sound of tires. He raises his head.
Inside a house you can not tell from what direction a car on the street is moving. The front of the house absorbs and consolidates street noise, thus muting its directional quality.
The sound of a moving vehicle is subject to physical laws, and involves the contraction and expansion of wave forms. An oncoming vehicle compresses the waves so that from a fixed position you hear the sound as rising in pitch, whereas an outgoing car's motion rarefies waves so its pitch appears to be falling. The Doppler effect.
It's EASY you fucking coward.
Just fall forward!
Pitch, intensity, and timbre are the three basic properties of sound. Pitch is expressed as the number of Hz, or cycles per second. On a saxophone the note A above middle C is 440 Hz. Doubling the frequency produces a note an octave higher; halving the frequency renders a note an octave lower. Sound travels at about 1,100 feet a second.
Tommy looks at the knife.
Another car drives by on the street in front of the house.
Yes, everything is held together by the immutable laws of physics. The sound produced by a moving car remains at a constant pitch, excluding of course the variations brought on by increases or decreases in the engine's rpms. It's all a matter of relativity, point of view.
Ah, fuck it.
Tommy walks over, puts the knife back in the drawer.
The pounding in his chest lessens. He breathes easier, deeper. He locks his fingers, pushes outward. The bones pop satisfactorily. He yawns. Blinks.
There are other examples of relativity. For instance, if you're riding your bike in a rain shower the falling rain strikes your face at an angle governed by the speed you are traveling. But for a person you pass, who is standing still on a curb, the rain is falling straight down.
Your forward movement creates the angle. As soon as you stop moving, well, the rain again falls straight down.
Which it had been doing all along.