Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Tangled Webs

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Tangled Webs

Article excerpt

My son Dave and I were in the car at McDonald's. We were waiting for his ride back to college with Ryan who lived an hour down the turnpike. Ryan's mother was driving. Twenty minutes late, they were supposed to meet us there at two o'clock. With a hand-held, Dave was recording my answers to questions for the oral history part of his folklore course. Where did my grandparents come from? What kind of work did they do? How did my parents meet? Were they readers? Did they tell family stories? Was there music in the house? Did my parents ever confess to mistakes they had made?

My father never confessed it was a mistake but, on a bet, he rode standing on the seat of his Harley, no hands, for about five miles to a railroad crossing outside of town. He always grinned when he told the story: An easy fifty bucks! I decided Dave didn't need to hear that one. He went on with the questions. Did I always tell my parents the truth? Was I ever caught in a lie?

I didn't go to church one Sunday when my mother was sick. I hung out at a diner with my friends, joking, drinking coffee, and listening to the jukebox. When 1 got home, my mother asked me about the sermon. Her friend Peg had already phoned, told her about the sermon, and said she hadn't seen me in church. So when I invented some stuff about the sermon, my mother said, "Oh what a tangled web we weave, / when first we practice to deceive."

"Did she make that up?"

"No, she was quoting Sir Walter Scott."

"Who's that?"

I began to think a college degree today wasn't even the equal of my mother's high school diploma. "Now let me ask you a question?" I said. "Were you smoking weed last night with your buddies?"

"No."

"If you were, would you tell me the truth?" I was worried about what he did with his crazy pals. Last summer a cop caught them drinking beer behind a local burger joint.

"Dad, c'mon. I've got this assignment to finish."

When he arrived home, he told his mother and me about the assignment but kept going out with his buddies and putting it off. I had asked him to give me the questions so I would think about them, but his professor said the answers should be spontaneous, not rehearsed. Now, at the very last minute, here he was doing his homework. "Did great-grandma and -grandpa tell stories?"

Before I could describe my grandmother's great stories about Gypsies in Poland, Dave's buddy and his mom pulled up next to us. Dave said he was going to phone home when he got to the dorm so he could finish the questions. He put his suitcase into Mrs. Wheeler's car trunk. I spoke to her for a few minutes, thanked her, and said I'd drive them the next time. Off they went.

A kid Dave's age came out of McDonald's with a broom and a long-handled dustpan. Back in the car, I watched him. His face was red. He didn't look happy sweeping up trash. My parents-I mourned for them, almost angry with the teenager I had been, not knowing or caring where my life was headed. It would be wonderful to be able to hear the long-gone voices of my parents, even if only on tape. Watching the kid, I drifted, thinking about stories and lies.

Cobey, an old high-school buddy, was giving me a lift in his hot Thunderbird. On top of the bridge, I looked downriver at the sprawl of Electric Boat where nuclear subs are made. That's where Cobey worked as a machinist on the second shift and why he could afford the cool T-Bird. A lot of guys in my high school class worked at EB, and it was still possible I might end up there as well.

Cobey said, "You giving yourself enough time?"

"Sure, it's not even ten o'clock."

He said he'd take me as far as Westerly. It was after Thanksgiving vacation. I was a sophomore. My parents had given me money to take the train but, without telling them, I decided to hitchhike back to college. It wouldn't be as boring, and I could use the bucks for something else, probably beer. I had painted a white cardboard sign that said MAINE in red letters. …

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