My father died because our house
was infested with ladybugs. Our French neighbors, the Herouxs, had imported a
hearty species of the insect to combat aphids in their garden. The ladybugs
bred and migrated. Hundreds upon hundreds were living in our curtains, our
cabinets, the ventilation system. At first, we thought it was hilarious and
fitting for us to be plagued by something so cute and benign. But these weren’t
nursery rhyme ladybugs. Not the adorable, shiny, red-and-black beetles. These
ladybugs were orange. They had uneven brown splotches. When I squished their
shells between my thumb and forefinger, they left a rust-colored stain on my
skin and an acrid smell that wouldn’t wash off. Dad used a vacuum hose to suck
up the little arched creatures, but they quickly replaced themselves. The
numbers never dwindled. Dad must have smoked a lot of pot before he climbed the
ladder to our roof. My guess is that he wanted to cover the opening in the
chimney. He’d suspected that the flue wasn’t closed all the way. Our house was
three stories high. When he fell, he landed on the Herouxs’ cement patio, his
skull fractured, his neck broken.
For months after
his death, I kept finding the ladybugs everywhere. When I stripped my bed, I’d
find them in the sheets. When I did laundry, I’d find their dead carapaces in
the dryer. When I woke up in the morning, I’d find a pair scuffling along my
freshly laundered pillowcases. Then just like that, they were gone.
Long after the last ladybug’s
departure, I pulled a pair of sunglasses from Mom’s purse on the car seat,
fogged the lenses with my breath, rubbed the plastic eyes against
my chest, and said to her, “You missed the scenic overlook.”
Mom swiped her sunglasses away from me. “There
will be other stops, Elise,” she said.
We were driving
through the Texas Hill Country in an upgraded rental car, cruising a roadway
called the Devil’s Backbone. Our destination:
LBJ. His ranch. His reconstructed birth site. The rental car guy had
flashed a brilliant smile when he bumped us up from a white Taurus to a monster
green SUV. Mom couldn’t resist bullying the skinny clerk. “No one screws me on
gas mileage. I’m not paying extra to fuel that obscenity. Knock ten dollars off
the daily fee.” As the car clerk hammered his keyboard and readjusted the
price, Mom winked at me.
My mother the investment banker. Every
morning, well before dawn, she would maneuver her own Ford Explorer across the George
Washington Bridge into Manhattan, cell-phoning her underlings while cutting
off other commuters. Mom called her first-year analysts “Meat” and bragged that
she, in turn, was known as “The Lion.” Mom always wore her long, straightened
red hair loose and down her back. She’d sport short skirts and sleeveless
dresses, showing off her sculpted calves and biceps. Mom specialized in M&As,
corporate restructuring, and bankruptcy. She traveled a lot. Dad had
brainstormed our presidential sightseeing tours
as a way for him to keep me entertained while Mom flew off to Chicago and Denver,
dismantling pharmaceutical corporations
along the way.
“I really think
we were supposed to stop at that overlook.” We coasted past juniper trees, live
oaks, limestone cliffs. As far as I could tell, the whole point of driving the
Devil’s Backbone was to stop at that particular overlook and view the span of
gently sloping hills from the highest vantage point. “Dad would have turned
back,” I said.
Mom just kept
driving. I passed the time by reading snippets from the Lonely Planet Guide
to Texas and rattling off the names of local towns: Wimberley, Comfort, and
Boerne. I flipped down the sun visor, replaited my French braids in the vanity
mirror. I’d worn my favorite outfit: red high-top sneakers, baggy khaki shorts,
and a T-shirt I’d special-ordered at a mall in Teaneck. For twenty-eight
dollars, a man from Weehawken had ironed black velvet letters onto the front of
a tiny green jersey. The letters spelled out Victim.
When my mother asked how I got off being so self-pitying, I told her it was the
name of my favorite underground band.
Backbone reminded me of the shingles sore tormenting my lower torso. The giant
scab resembled a hard red shell. The family doctor had explained how sometimes
the chicken pox virus would remain dormant in a nerve ending, waiting for the
immune system to weaken before reemerging. He was concerned because he’d never
seen shingles in anyone my age. Usually he treated it in older patients, or in
cases occurring with cancer or AIDS. People closing in on death. I told Mom the
shingles were proof I was special. The agony wasn’t limited to the blisters on
my back. My whole body felt inflamed, as if a rabid wolf were hunting rabid
squirrels inside my chest. The doctor recommended
ibuprofen for the pain. He gave me
pamphlets describing stress-reducing breathing exercises. The first few
nights Mom slipped me half a Vicodin and a nip of Benedictine brandy. As I
tried to sleep, I heard her roaming from living room to bedroom to family room.
I listened. My mother the widow did not weep, did not cry out for her dead
A year after my father died, my
mother’s breasts began to grow. She developed a deep, embarrassing plunge of
cleavage, a pendulous swinging bosom that attacked my own flat body each time
she hugged me good night. Mom’s belly had pouted. Ballooned. I could detect the
domed button of her navel pressing out against the soft silk of her blouses.
Her ankles swelled and I became suspicious. Mom was maybe six months into her
pregnancy. I did the math. Dad had been pushing dead too long to be the father.
I was about to enter my sophomore year at the Academy of Holy Angels. Before
school started, I wanted the shingles on my back to disappear, I wanted to tour
the reconstructed birthplace of Lyndon Baines Johnson, and I wanted my mother
to admit to me that she was pregnant.
With Dad gone, I’d insisted on
upholding our family’s tradition of visiting presidential landmarks. Dad and I
had been doing them in chronological order. We’d seen the big ones: Mount
Vernon, Monticello, The Hermitage, Sagamore Hill. Weeks before Dad broke his neck,
we’d spent a lively afternoon in the gift shop of the John Fitzgerald Kennedy
Library, rubbing our faces in the soft velour of JFK commemorative golf towels.
The less popular the sites, the more obscure the leader of our country, the
more Dad got excited: “Elise, can you imagine? John Tyler actually sat in this
breakfast nook and ate soft-boiled eggs from those egg cups.” In Columbia, Tennessee,
I tore white azalea petals from James K. Polk’s ancestral garden while Dad
rambled on about the Mexican War, the “dark horse,” and “Fifty-four Forty or
Fight.” At the Albany Rural Cemetery, Dad and I knelt solemnly before the grave
of Chester Alan Arthur. A giant marble angel with voluminous wings towered over
us. We prayed to our favorite forgotten leader, the father of civil service
reform. One year, we spent Christmas in Cape Cod at a beachside inn that had
been a secret getaway for Grover Cleveland and his mistress. Mom couldn’t make
that trip, so Dad and I tramped by ourselves on the snow-covered sand dunes,
plotting my own future run for the presidency. “You need a catchphrase. And a
trademark >hairdo so the cartoonists can
All day we’d been driving in
various stages of silence and radio static. Mom asked whether I’d like to stop
for sundaes. I considered patting her belly and making a joke about cravings
for ice cream and pickles. I had expected Mom to nix my travel plans for us,
but really, I just wanted her to be honest and say to me, “Elise, I can’t fly.
Not in my condition.” Instead, when I said, “Johnson,” Mom folded her arms
against her burgeoning chest. She swung her hair over her shoulders, and said,
“Texas in August? Why can’t it be Hawaii? I’m certain Lyndon Johnson loved the
The day before,
we’d visited the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas. Mom and I took the elevator up
to the top of the Texas School Book Depository. We slowly worked our way
through the permanent exhibit dedicated to the Kennedy assassination. Though a
glass wall surrounded the actual Oswald window, Mom and I got close enough to
size up the short distance between the building and the X on the street
below. The X marked the spot where Kennedy was first hit. I’d always
imagined Dealey Plaza as an enormous expanse of traffic and park, but here it
was in front of me, tiny and green, more like a miniature replica made by a
film crew. One SUV after another covered the X as the cars drove over
the site in perpetual reenactment of Kennedy’s last ride. This was the bona
fide scene of the infamous crime. Mom whispered, “Even I could make that shot.”
She hugged me from behind and I felt the baby’s heartbeat vibrate through her
belly. In anticipation of our trip, I’d begun calling my secret sibling
“Lyndon.” I asked, “Is Lyndon kicking?” Mom ignored me. Weeks ago, when I’d
asked her point blank if she was pregnant and quizzed her on what she intended
to do with the baby, instead of answering the question she told me that her new
goal in life was to get me away from “the fucking Holy Angels.”
Dad was the
Catholic. Mom’s family had come over on the Mayflower. “Elise, a lot of Yankees
brag about tracing their roots back. Always be conscious of your place in
history. Most of the people on that ship were poor. Your relatives were the
lucky ones with money.” Before her parents divorced and squandered everything,
my mother grew up rich in Manhattan. Her childhood bedroom had a view of the
Sheep Meadow and the Central Park Reservoir. Both of Mom’s doormen were named
Fritz. When she turned six, her folks hired Richard Avedon to take the
snapshots at her birthday party. At sixteen, she’d curtsied before Princess
Grace at a charity fund-raiser for retired racehorses. I often felt as though
Dad and I were descended from one class of people, while Mom hailed from
another class entirely.
My father sold
pies for a living. Nominally, he was the vice president of “The Pie Piper,” his
parents’ international bakery corporation, but mostly what Dad chose to do was
drive his pie truck around the Tri-State Area. Checking and restocking Safeways
and Star Markets. Shelving lemon cream, Coconut Dream, and chocolate meringue
pies. Dad had a jacket with Teamster
embroidered on the back. He liked to brag that he knew the fastest routes in
and out of Manhattan, at any point during the day. He knew when best to take
the Lincoln Tunnel.
Dad felt that my aristocratic heritage
and working-class lineage would make me an ideal political candidate. He cast
me as a liberal Democrat and cast himself as my campaign manager. Dad first ran
me in third grade for homeroom line leader. I lost to Andorra Rose, whose
mother, on election day, made two dozen chocolate cupcakes with pink rosebuds
in the center. Dad viewed this loss as a tactical oversight. Our future
campaigns always involved the Pie Piper donating dozens of pies and pastries to
Holy Angels. In fifth grade, I was class treasurer. In seventh grade, I was
student representative to the advisory council on redesigning our school
uniforms. Dad imagined I would win the governorship of New Jersey, and from there, if I could find the
right Southern running mate, become the first woman president of the United States.
I was twelve the
afternoon I caught Dad sprawled out on the Philadelphia Chippendale, one hand
holding a silver lighter, the other hand cradling a short ceramic pipe. There’d
been a bomb scare at Holy Angels and the nuns had begrudgingly sent us home
early. Dad was wearing his boxer shorts and watching a rerun of The Joker’s
Wild. He flung a cashmere blanket over his lap, swung his legs off my
mother’s two-hundred-year-old sofa and said, “Honey, come meet James Buchanan.”
I sat beside my bare-chested father, his blond hair flattened on one side, and
watched him twirl his pipe around. “Made this in college. Art class. The clay
morphed in the kiln.” He showed me the blunt end of the pipe. “Looks just like
our bachelor president. His first lady was his niece. Handsome fellow.” On the
TV, Wink Martindale exclaimed, “Joker! Joker! Joker!” Dad smiled, “Don’t worry.
Your mom has seen me smoke.”
confided to me that he’d had panic attacks as a kid. “I’d be paralyzed with
fear. Knocked out with it. The only thing that helped was reading almanacs.”
Dad memorized historical facts, like the years each president served in office,
and he’d repeat these dates in an effort to calm himself down. “Zachary Taylor
1849—50, Rutherford Birchard Hayes 1877—81, Franklin Pierce 1853—57.”
At fifteen, Dad discovered pot.
I loved sitting
in the living room while Dad toked up. Marijuana haze drifted around me,
settling on the folds of my wool pleated skirt. I’d lean my neck down against
my Peter Pan collar and catch the wonderful stink of weed lingering against my
blouse. I was a nervous kid. I often threw up before big tests. No one at Holy
Angels invited me to their sleepovers anymore, on account of my loud, thrashing
night terrors. Even my closest friend, Alana Clinton, often insisted I take a
chill pill. I’d attempted hypnosis therapy to treat the warts on my hands, the
muscle spasm in my left eye, the mysterious rashes that appeared across my
stomach, my inner-ear imbalance, and my tooth-grinding problem. Only breathing
in my father’s pot smoke truly relaxed me. He never let me inhale directly from
Buchanan, but he’d grant me a contact high. Afterward, the two of us would
split one of my father’s ancestral peach pies. This happened once or twice a
week. Mom didn’t know.
Mom and I pulled off the Devil’s
Backbone and stopped for soft-serve at a place called The Frozen Armadillo. She
got a chocolate and vanilla twist with a cherry-flavored dip, and I ordered a
vanilla cone covered in something advertised as Twinkle-Kote. Outside in the
August heat, the ice cream dripped down our arms. We decided to eat the cones
in the air-conditioned rental car. I told Mom my theory about LBJ and the
Kennedy assassination. I was convinced that Lyndon was the real culprit. Nothing
that big could happen in Texas without Lyndon’s approval.
obvious,” I said. “Who gains the most from Kennedy dying? LBJ gets to be president.
Who’s responsible for the investigation and subsequent cover-up? LBJ gets to
appoint the Warren Commission. There’s proof that LBJ actually knew Jack Ruby.
All LBJ ever wanted was to be president. Not vice president. He was an old man.
Time was running out.” I told my mother that there had been talk of Kennedy
dropping LBJ from the ticket in ’64.
“How do you know so much?” she asked.
fault,” I said.
“You know, your
father always wanted to be a high school history teacher.”
him?” I asked.
Mom said, wiping ice cream off my nose, “convicted felons aren’t allowed to
Mom balanced her
own ice cream cone against the steering wheel and turned on the ignition. She
headed out toward Johnson City. We drove past brown, sandy hills crowned by
patches of cacti with round, thorned leaves.
“Take it back.”
I told her. “What you said. Take it back.”
idealize your father. You didn’t know him as well as you’d like to think.”
“From the looks
of it,” I pointed to Mom’s belly, “Dad didn’t know you at all.” I was deciding
between calling my mother a “bitch” and calling her a “fucking bitch” when she
chucked the rest of her ice cream cone at the side of my face. The ice cream
splattered against my hair and cheek. The wafer cone landed on the side of my
leg. I picked it up and threw it back at her. I pulled the top of my own ice
cream off of its cone and aimed for Mom’s chest. She shrieked, swerving the car
and throwing back at me whatever clumps of ice cream she could pull from her
cleavage. We each lost sense of our target, hurling any ice cream slop we could
get hold of. The rental car’s green cloth upholstery and side windows clouded
over in a sticky, cherry-flavored film. Chocolate ice cream melted in streams
down Mom’s chest. The black velvet letters on my Victim T-shirt soaked up my
dessert. Mom drove and swore. She called me ungrateful and threatened to leave
me right there on the spine of the Devil’s Backbone. Mom didn’t notice the bend
in the road. She screamed in confusion as our rental car lurched through a very
real white picket fence, careening down a hill and into an orchard. She pumped
and locked the breaks just in time for us to hit a patch of peach trees.
The air bags did not work. No explosion of white
pillow. In that brief instant, as I watched the seat belt jerk Mom back and
hold her safely in place, I thought of how the pressure and force of the air
bag would have crushed Mom’s belly, crippling Lyndon, killing the start of him.
Mom saved me from the windshield by holding her right arm out straight against
my chest. “Holy fuck,” she said.
Mom surveyed me.
“Are you all right?” she asked. We got out of the car together, the two of us
still dripping with ice cream. We marveled at the damage. A peach tree appeared
to be growing out of the hood of our rental car. Mom picked up a pink and
yellow fruit, brushing the fuzz against her lips before taking a bite. “You and
your presidents,” she said. “That’s it. I’m through. And you can be damned sure
I’m not taking you to Yorba Linda. There’s no fucking way I’m visiting Nixon.”
I insisted on hiking the remaining
mile and a half to the LBJ Ranch. The car was not my problem. I was a kid and
this was my summer vacation. I stayed a hundred yards in front of my mother.
She played with her cell phone the entire time, dialing and redialing numbers.
From her loud cursing, I could tell that there was no service, no way to call a
tow truck or taxi. No way to complain to her mystery lover about me. I imagined
my mother had many young lovers. For all I knew, she didn’t know who Lyndon’s
father was. I didn’t want to think about The Lion having sex. I wanted to
remember the Saturday mornings when I’d wake up early, sneak into my parents’
room, and burrow a narrow tunnel between their sleeping bodies. I’d trace the
beauty marks on Mom’s back, naming the largest ones. With the tips of my
fingers, I’d smooth out the worry lines on my father’s forehead. Their bed was
an enormous life raft. I would imagine that the three of us were the last
family left in the world. I loved my parents best when they were asleep and I
was standing guard.
To read the rest of this story and others from the Summer 2004 issue,
click here to purchase it from our online store.