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Savage World
Kathe Izzo

I have always hated the cold beyond reason.

I wish I could melt away.

I was born in Provincetown, a weird little place on the furthest tip of the fist of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I was born on the edge of nothing that is Provincetown in the winter, two weeks after Valentine’s Day, my mother alone in a drafty bed by the sea.

There are moments that are the size of life, as if life were one certain hope. You can cram that moment full, keeping everything tiny and understood, or you can fill it chaotically with one spindly empty thing, letting that spindly thing swell blandly until everything around you loses meaning, like staring at the word "the".

My parents met at the Old Colony, the last scratchy bar in town, when my mom was working around the corner at the Surf Club. She ended up in Provincetown that summer by a process of elimination, slumming it, running away from her arty, self-righteous parents. Her father was an art dealer in New York City and her mother was an opera singer. She had just missed the end of her junior year at Sarah Lawrence, lost the thread. In the bare blue and white ammonia mopped rooms and sun-bleached decks of the Surf Club, my mother became an average girl of wholesome beauty with some minor wild habits that, in Provincetown anyway, made her feel sexy and not depressed. She started me that summer, meeting up with my father night after drunken night in the Old Colony.

My father belonged to another family. He lived with us just once really, my mother and I, one time, one week of my whole life.

This one time he came back from fishing and the locks on his real house were changed. I don’t think they were ever locked before. No one was home and there was no fire in the stove. It was twilight in the two-room apartment at the top of our shaky flight of stairs that afternoon and I sat on the floor next to the heater.

I was almost four at the time and my mother says I cannot possibly remember these things.

But I do. I can see the ice forming on both the inside and the outside of the flimsy kitchen door. I can feel the blizzard coming, through my knees pressed on the linoleum and I can see that wet circle clearing in the middle pane of glass, my father’s ruddy lips breaking through, mouthing something funny to me.

He always knew when I was looking at him, like when you catch someone staring at you in a rearview mirror, his crazy black cell of an eye always finding mine, He was still in the thick plaid jacket caked with all sorts of gunk and blood that he had worn alone on the boat for the last few days, his black beard matted with snow. He stood just inside the door and stamped his boots on the newspapers, lowering his head and looking a little sheepish.

It is not so much that I know my dad that well, although I remember all of this true, like it happened yesterday, but the thing you have to remember is that I know my mom like she is me. My mother always says we have no rooms in our house, only passageways, whatever that means. She says stuff like that all the time. She’s a slogan queen.

She’s proud of those passageways. She thinks it makes her a good mom.

Of course he came all the way in and of course my mom made him dinner. I am so glad that I have not inherited those female cohabitation skills my mom seems to be so expert in. She may not get it all right, but she has that ability to move right on in with these guys, or move them in with us, with this annoying confidence and within hours we’re open for business. Just like that.

The night my father arrived it began to snow, one of those solemn and deranged winter storms on the Cape; the snow falling horizontal across the bay, pushing it’s way up beneath the flashing of the windows and into the house. By noon the following day, the power was out in the whole town.

The electricity in Provincetown is connected to the nearest civilization by some wire and a wobbly series of poles. Route 6, the only way out of town, stretches over a landscape that consists mainly of wind with some sand mixed in. If the weather didn’t do us in, one of the frequent car wrecks, even 30 miles away, could leave us without power for up to a week.

Route 6 was littered with small shrines to the reportedly happy and healthy victims, usually (it seemed) families and small children. Of course there were always a few of those tragic loners the outer Cape seemed to specialize in as well. Sometimes there would be just a little cross staked in the brush, some fake flowers piled up, faded and dead-looking as if they were real, sometimes there were words, a poem. Nailed furiously to a tree about a quarter mile out of town right now is a seemingly dead teddy bear, it’s head lolling to one side. I always see it after I pass, in the corner of my mind.

Fortunately we had one of those coal stoves in our apartment and we were used to using it. In the later afternoon of that first full day of our family life, I remember singing in the kitchen, the floor cold, following light and then dust and then one broken crayon rolling, salmon pink, deep into the corner. I pressed my face and ear against the wall. I breathed in the soft mute of the outside and let it go. I slept and then I woke. In the corner purple light became blood brown and then half black as I listened to my parents voices muffled and rocking in the next room, where they had remained, constant and continuous as the snow, across the night and into the morning.

By the time my mother tumbled out of her room, all fragrant and shiny, I was cold. Her rock star hair tossed to one side of her head, her bleary eyes squinting, she faltered only slightly when she found me lying there, under the window with the dog. I could feel her. I could feel her with my eyes shut, filling the sky above me, her skinny, ringless fingers quivering, holding her crumpled kimono bathrobe closed.


I opened my eyes for her against my will. I couldn’t help myself. She lifted me to her hip and attempted to brush away the dust and dog hair that clung to my zippered pajamas. She pushed her hair behind her ear. A sour and familiar smell sweated from her in the cold.

"We’re gonna be good here, yeah, we’re gonna be good, we’re gonna make a nice fire, shit, what am I doing, Linda . . . shit . . ."

She dug through the rough wooden box with her scoop, pushing the lumps of coal against the side and then dropping them as she attempted to fill the stove. She set me back down on the floor and stuck both of her hands into the soot, stuffing the gaping belly of the stove, black dust rising and clinging to her sleeves.

The door of my mother’s room was left open. I moved across the floor and inside, away from the mess of my mother’s fire and into the low fluttering of my father’s breathing. I walked slowly in a wobbly diagonal, approaching the misshapen pile of blankets, clothes, books, empty boxes and crooked bottles that was my mother’s bed. I walked past the miniature futon that belonged to me, one heavy foreign boot leaning against my pillow, the other fallen beside it, slightly tipping the remains of last night’s kale soup. Both beds were on the floor, my mother’s and mine.

My father laid in my mother’s bed, long and naked, despite the cold, his wooly torso stretching out of the blanket. He stared up at the ceiling, staring up at the ceiling, his arms behind his head, eyes open for a long time and then closed. Without looking at me, he stretched one hand in my direction, palm open, flat and still, as if it were holding water, trembling. I turned to run when another giant hand shot out from beneath the covers and yanked me into bed, my body balling up into a kink.

"Hey you, I’ve got you, got you right here, darlin’ don’t you go anywhere, come right here with your daddy.. " His hard face pushed into mine then scraped against my belly as his two palms crushed my ribs. He held me above him. I looked down into his swollen eyes.

The week went on. My mother laughed and cooked more soup. I wandered from room to room. My parents drank and pushed their bodies together. In the bedroom, on the kitchen table, against the wall. They fell down, broke things. I remember the phone ringing suddenly. They didn’t answer it. Instead they turned on the TV, fitting my tiny body perfectly in the opening between the two of them.

On about the fifth morning, the sun came out and I sat at the table with my father. We were silent, listening to the drip and crack of the ice moving outside. I was eating a hardboiled egg that I had watched my father score crosswise several times with a fork. My mother was sleeping. My father listened intently with his eyes downcast and almost closed and I practiced being like him. His lips pressed hard against each other. One hand stirred his coffee round and round.

We sat this way for a long time, ice creaking and clock ticking. Once in a while he would reach across the table and touch my face with his fingertips, then he would take a breath and glance over his shoulder. Leaning across the table, he would begin, as if rehearsing for a play, or as if he thought he was on TV, ". . In this savage world. . ," but before he could continue, he would laugh and shake his head and take another breath, looking behind himself one more time. Only this second time, he would somehow manage to look over his shoulder without moving at all, as if his eyes could turn inside his head. He would disappear inside himself for a brief second and become almost invisible, a thin line of smoke, then haze, in front of the hard light of the flats of sand on the bay, inside the brace of blank windows.

This happened several times. Now I know that this was just a trick of the brightness of the day, but then I didn’t know that.

I wasn’t sure who he was talking to.

After we had sat for a while, and my mother still had not woken up, my father picked me up, holding me under one arm while he wiped the crumbs off the table with a sponge. He placed our dishes in the sink, balancing my bowl delicately on top of the already heaped and tilted pile. He continued to hold me as he turned on the radio, tuning into a local weather station and turning up the volume. He lifted me up and placed my stomach on his shoulder and twirled me around a few times before entering the tiny bathroom, setting me next to him on the toilet as he removed his shirt. He proceeded to prepare himself for his first shave since his arrival. Scavenging under the sink, he dug out a beat up aerosol can of Barbasol that had rusted to the back of the cabinet and checked out the edge of my mother’s pink disposable razor in the light. He winced and kept looking, but not without first bending down and handing me a shimmery bar of hotel soap that he had found as well, still in it’s ripped, gold embossed paper wrapper.

Someone knocked on the door. The sound made my skin hurt. My father bent out of the bathroom, narrowing his body so as not to be seen. He stepped back in, looked down and flashed me a smile, holding his finger to his lips. I lifted my finger and kissed it. The shaving cream made a white scar across his cheek.

From where I sat, I could see a boy at the door with a safety orange skullcap pulled over his ears. He was a teenager, tall and unfamiliar, with bushy eyebrows. He looked right at me. I could hear the boy’s boots shift with a sharp crunching sound. He knocked again.

"Shit," my father said, his hands resting on the edge of the sink, his eyes fastened in the mirror. He shook his head once and then twice, stopping in between to look at himself.

Then there was another knock. My father took a breath and nudged the door open with his shoulder as he walked through the kitchen without his shirt on, drying his hands with a towel and lifting his chin to the boy. Snow fell on the kitchen floor as the door edged open against it.

"Jamey," my father reached out, taking the boy’s hand as if to shake it. He placed this other hand on the boy’s shoulder.

Jamey did not enter the room but stood outside silently and blinked, at one point stepping to the side to avoid the melting snow.

"How’s it been going? How’s everything?" My father cleared his throat, not once but twice, his hand scratching his chest. He turned towards the bathroom to pick up his shirt, talking over his shoulder as he walked.

"Come on in, it’s ok son, come on in, did you have breakfast?"

"It’s twelve o’clock, Dad"

"Oh yeah, well, yeah, we’ve been so quiet, I mean it’s been so quiet, you know, what with all the snow and all, we’ve been, uh. " and saying "we" he remembered me, now standing in the doorway to the bathroom in my pajamas, leaning my shoulders back towards the wall and pushing my stomach out into the room.

"Mom sent me here, Dad. She told me to tell you to cut the shit and come home." He looked at me when he said the word shit.

My father was looking down, buttoning his shirt. "Oh, did she say that? I bet she did. I bet she did." He pulled a chair away from the kitchen table and sat down, his hands on his knees. Then, remembering something, he stood and went to the door of the bedroom, quietly turning the knob and entering.

The boy continued to stand outside the open door. It was cold where I stood, staring at him. He moved his feet back and forth and then up and down. He brought an ungloved hand to his mouth in a fist, sending as small cloud of breath through his fingers into the room. Finally he entered, closing the door behind him. He stood just inside, leaning on one leg and then the other, with his arms at his side. He tried not to look at me. He still wore his orange hat.

The door to the bedroom opened and I could barely see my mother’s back, untouched and still, rolled in towards the wall, a pillow over her head, before the door closed. My father came out with his boots in his hand. Sitting back down at the table he began to pull them on. His face was still half-shaven, but the line of shaving cream was long gone. His mouth lay in a straight line. He tied his boots.

"You been helping your mom out there with all this snow?"

He stood up.

"Well, we just got back last night. Been staying at Noni’s since before the storm. Well some of us, on and off. Mom didn’t want her to be alone and Noni said she wasn’t moving. I stayed over at Bobby’s a few nights too. We walked out on the beach, the wharf, when the storm was going on, checked on the boat. I didn’t know if you had come back, figure the Coast Guard would’ve said somethin’ but then there was the snow. ."

My father slammed his hand on the table.

"The door was locked, boy. The door was locked. Tell me something, you got a key for that door?" He looked Jamey hard in the eye.

"No sir."

My father grabbed his jacket from the mess on the floor, knocking over a tall stack of newspapers piled haphazardly by the stove. They slid into the middle of the floor. He stepped on top of them as he leaned forward into the boy’s face.

"The door was fucking locked. Come back from the boat and your mother locked the fucking door. I just bet she sent you looking for me, like I’m not showing up, like I wouldn’t show up. . "

Now the door was open. His hand was on the doorknob. His other hand pushed through his hair. He walked out. He was still talking to the boy in that loud way. I strained to hear them as the door slammed shut.




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