It was November 1979 and, to Jill Wasserstrom, time was trudging by so slowly that it seemed as if it would take five decades to get through the next five years. Five years from now, she would have just entered college, and her father would have the whole apartment to himself; he could convert her and Michelle's room into a workshop--not that he knew how to fix anything. She, meanwhile, would be long gone--taking courses in Art History to nourish her soul, and in Law or Medicine so that she'd be able to make enough money to send Michelle anonymous monthly payments to support her drug habit or pay her shrink or bail her boyfriends out of Cook County before they stood trial for grand theft auto.
The only difficulty was getting through those next five years, or more precisely, those next four years and ten months. Four years and ten months ago, she hadn't even started Hebrew school; she hadn't even heard of crazy old Rabbi Einstein or Rabbi Meltzer or, Lord help her, Rabbi Shmulevits. Four years and ten months ago, she had just skipped from second to third grade at Boone Elementary. Four years and ten months ago, her sister had seemed perfectly smart. Four years and ten months ago, her mother had seemed perfectly healthy. Four years and ten months ago, they had been talking about moving into a house west of California.
Jill heard keys jingling outside the door--her father. It always took twenty seconds for him to find the right key. He'd try one, then another, then get the right one but turn it the wrong way, lock the door instead of open it, take two shoves to open the door because he couldn't do it in one try. Charlie Wasserstrom asked if anybody was home. Jill closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. "Oh," Charlie said, loudly shutting the door. "I didn't think you'd be asleep." Jill kept her eyes shut and listened to him tiptoe, hang up his raincoat in the closet, apologize for the clatter of keys when the coat fell to the floor ("Sorry, sorry"), open the refrigerator door, take out a beer, set it down just a bit too hard on the kitchen counter ("Sorry, sorry"), go to the bathroom, shut the door, urinate loudly, flush, then jiggle the toilet handle, stop to hear the coughing and swirling of the bowl attempting to refill itself, jiggle the handle again, then tiptoe back to the living room. He told Jill he was sorry to wake her but he had good news.
Charlie Wasserstrom's good news was never the sort of good news worth waiting up to hear; what tended to excite him seemed so utterly trivial that his happiness usually depressed Jill. Like the time he arrived home, beaming, turning up WDHF-FM loud, and shh-ing her and Michelle each time they asked what was so exciting, finally punching his fist in the air when some guffawing deejay called Captain Whammo ("You're listening to 95-and-a-half, the Whammo line!") announced that "Charlie Wasserstrom of North Campbell Avenue has won two tickets to see the Electric Light Orchestra at the Aragon Ballroom!"--even though Charlie had never heard of E.L.O. and gave the tickets to Michelle, whom he'd dropped off at the concert with some flat-skulled water polo player who pawed her all through the car ride home while Charlie said nothing, except when Michelle confronted him afterward and his only response had been, "I didn't want to interrupt; I thought you kids were having a good time."
Charlie Wasserstrom enjoyed getting things for free--or for half-off--even if he had never really wanted those things in the first place. He would come home with armloads of off-brand cereal, LPs from the cutout bin, liver sausage and Tater Tots, discontinued board games like Numble, Coup D'Etat, and Situation-Four. All this filled Jill with such dread that whenever her father said, "I have some good news," the only thing she could associate it with was the time he returned with her mother from the "routine doctor's appointment" and said they had "something serious to discuss."
From Crossing California by Adam Langer. Copyright Adam Langer 2004. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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