What I Meant to Ask






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Publication: The Antioch Review
Author: Mazzarella, Nicole
Date published: January 1, 2012

That morning I almost missed the front-page news of Pepsi Cola's plans. Something in the way my wife smacked my plate with a spatula full of eggs made me fold the newspaper and lay it to the side. Even with a sideways glance, I couldn't miss the address. Pepsi Cola planned to tear down every house on Martin Avenue, including the house where I'd joined five sisters and six brothers. Me, the twelfth, the one mother loved best because father promised I was the last.

They tore down that house long after my mother died of septicemia, and the family scattered us to uncles, aunts, and grandparents. No one thought to burden my father with us. No one thought the less of him for finding work in Cleveland, for starting another family, for meeting most of his grandchildren when they were nearly grown.

I never thought to look for my father until I watched a backhoe scoop the remains of that house into a dumpster. I brought my boy with me the morning of the demolition. He'd taken an interest in his Wyandotte dump truck, where he piled the pieces of his sisters' dismantled dollhouse. Years later he was known for what he took apart. First was that prank at the high school with bleachers piled high in the middle of the football field. Then there was the '58 Chevy Impala that became an antique sitting in pieces in my garage. Then the three marriages, leaving a grandchild for my wife and me to raise.

But on the day we visited my childhood home, my son was just a boy who loved seeing trucks claw through brick and plaster and twoby-fours. By the time we arrived, only the back kitchen wall stood. Our basement was the pit for fractured beams, twisted water pipes, and hunks of bricks still mortared together. From the front porch, one of the demo men shot a stream of water into the hole to keep down the dust. The dust carried the smell of cooking oil, mold, and mothballs. The house smelled older than I remembered it. It smelled like a house that ought to be torn down.

Some other woman's drapes hung over the kitchen window, but my mother's favorite flower still papered the only remaining wall. The light yellow wallpaper had faded to a dull gray, but I pointed out the bits of blue cornflowers to my boy. "Your grandmother carried seeds of those in her apron pocket to sprinkle as she walked. There's hardly a corner of this county that doesn't have patches of them," I told him. The bulldozer rammed into the wall, and my son cheered.

I went alone to my father's house in Cleveland. I showed him a picture of my boy standing triumphantly on the front steps that dropped off to rubble. I told him about my wife who had stayed home that day because one of our daughters had asthma, and my wife worried about the dust. I didn't tell him that she worried about a great many things. That she had worried for so long that I might find another woman attractive, I eventually did. And when she worried I might sleep with that woman, it seemed there was no other choice to make. But she never worried I would leave her, about that she was right, I never did.

My father showed me pictures of the family that came after ours. His children had graduated from college, something my brothers and I had no need for. We'd learned our trades from our uncles, who never felt like fathers, but who taught us how to be men. Without ever saying as much, my uncle taught me that any of us could become my father, and if we faulted him, we'd have less grace for ourselves. And that grace would be hard to find in this life, as it was.

Only after the Pepsi Cola plant sat abandoned and my wife had passed did I remember the question I meant to ask my father that day. A question my uncle could not have faulted me for asking. I meant to ask if he minded that I'd spent most of my life not giving him a thought.

But then this evening, after the dishes were cleared, and the coffee poured, I eased into the lounge chair to better cushion the great-grandson handed to me. Only days into this world, the child believed that anyone who held him could nourish him. He nuzzled his downy head into the crook of my elbow, nosing the folds of flesh. As he suckled my tired flesh between his gums, I knew that had not been the question at all. No, I meant to ask something else entirely.

Author affiliation:

Nicole Mazzarella is the author of the novel This Heavy Silence and is the writer and associate producer for the documentary Flesh: Bought and Sold in the U.S. She teaches creative writing at Wheaton College and is at work on her second novel.

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