I arrived with my toolbox at the old brick duplex early one Saturday morning, less than a week after her discharge from the hospital. Ray officially disapproved of the project and left in a huff when I got there. Looking pale and walking cautiously, Ma forced a smile and began carrying her canisters and knickknacks out of the kitchen to temporary storage. She watched from the pantry doorway as I committed my first act of renovation, tamping my flatbar with a hammer and wedging it between the wainscoting and the wall. Ma's hand was a fist at her mouth, tapping, tapping against her lip.
With the crack and groan of nails letting go their hold, the four-foot-wide piece of wainscoting was pried loose from the wall, revealing plaster and lath and an exposed joist where someone had written notes and calculations. "Look," I said, wanting to show her what I guessed was her father's handwriting. But when I turned around, I realized I was addressing the empty pantry.
I was thirty-six at the time, unhappily divorced for less than a year. Sometimes in the middle of the night, I'd still reach for Dessa, and her empty side of the bed would startle me awake. We'd been together for sixteen years.
I found my mother sitting in the front parlor, trying to hide her tears. The newly repaired photo album was in her lap.
"What's the matter?"
She shook her head, tapped her lip. "I don't know, Dominick. You go ahead. It's just that with everything that's happening right now . . ."
"You don't want a new kitchen?" I asked. The question came out like a threat.
"Honey, it's not that I don't appreciate it." She patted the sofa cushion next to her. "Come here. Sit down."
Still standing, I reminded her that she'd complained for decades about her lack of counter space. I described the new stoves I'd seen at Kitchen Depot--the ones where the burners are one continuous flat surface, a cinch for cleaning. I sounded just like the saleswoman who'd led me around from one showroom miracle to the next.
Ma said that she knew a new kitchen would be great, but that maybe what she really needed right now was for things to stay settled.
I sat. Sighed, defeated.
"If you want to give me something," she said, "give me something small."
"Okay, fine," I huffed. "I'll just make you one of those collage things like Thomas's. Except mine will say life sucks. Or jesus christ's a son of a bitch." My mother was a religious woman. I might as well have taken my flatbar and poked at her incision.
"Don't be bitter, honey," she said.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, I was crying--tears and strangled little barks that convulsed from the back of my throat. "I'm scared," I said.
"What are you scared of, Dominick? Tell me."
"I don't know," I said. "I'm scared for you." But it was myself I was scared for. Closing in on forty, I was wifeless, childless. Now I'd be motherless, too. Left with my crazy brother and Ray.
She reached over and rubbed my arm. "Well, honey," she said, "it's scary. But I accept it because it's what God wants for me."
"What God wants," I repeated, with a little snort of contempt. I dragged my sleeve across my eyes, cleared my throat.
"Give me something little," she repeated. "You remember that time last spring when you came over and said, 'Hey, Ma, get in the car and I'll buy you a hot fudge sundae'? That's the kind of thing I'd like. Just come visit. Look at my album with me."
Tucked in the inside front cover pocket of my mother's scrapbook are two pictures of Thomas and me, scissored four decades earlier from the Three Rivers Daily Record. The folded newsprint, stained brown with age, feels as light and brittle as dead skin. In the first photo, we're wrinkled newborns, our diapered bodies curved toward each other like opening and closing parentheses. identical twins ring out old, ring in new, the caption claims and goes on to explain that Thomas and Dominick Tempesta were born at the Daniel P. Shanley Memorial Hospital on December 31, 1949, and January 1, 1950, respectively--six minutes apart and in two different years. (The article makes no mention of our father and says only that our unnamed mother is "doing fine." We were bastards; our births would have been discreetly ignored by the newspaper had we not been the New Year's babies.) "Little Thomas arrived first, at 11:57 p.m.," the article explains. "His brother Dominick followed at 12:03 a.m. Between them, they straddle the f iii irst and second halves of the twentieth century!"
© June 1998 , Wally Lamb. Used by permission.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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