The Fox Breaks The Code

By Annie Dawid

In his will, my 87-year-old lawyer father included the proviso that the definition of grandchildren who would benefit from his estate included, in addition to any extant grandchildren, “any child born to any of my three children up to and including nine months from the date of my death.” What was he thinking? That one of us would go out and impregnate or get pregnant within 24 hours of his passing?

Probably, he was thinking of me.

Unlike my siblings, I actually would do something like that. (Though I didn’t, too busy with my one-year-old son, whom I’m raising alone.) The mystery behind such a clause leads me to the box of condoms I found in the medicine cabinet when I cleaned out his apartment a few months after the memorial service, over which I presided, my milk leaking as I spoke from the podium. My siblings weren’t interested in the contents of my father’s Fifth Avenue co-op; me, I knew there’d be juicy information, perhaps in code. The ripped open Trojan box, designed to hold 12 prophylactics, contained only 11.

In a drawerful of correspondence, I found a slew of cards addressed to my dour, sour father dated a few years previous, from one Gloria Greenberg on East 88th Street. Each message contained some sort of thank you – for flowers, a night at the theater, the card he’d sent her, and for being such a wonderfully kind and generous man on her birthday. What were his gifts, I wondered. Dinner out? Jewels? Art? From the handwriting, I deduced that Mrs. Greenberg – she used the title on her return address – was close to his age; each letter was carefully formed, slanting just so, her numerals curvaceous. Clearly, she’d studied penmanship, a skill dropped from the latter twentieth century curriculum. Naturally, I was glad to discover that this romance – how many were there? — had not been with some young gold-digger, though she might have been an old one.

But could elderly Mrs. Greenberg be responsible for the missing condom? The potency date on the box had long since expired. Surely, she would not be risking pregnancy. Would my father have worried about AIDS? I could picture him reminding himself, in his no-nonsense way, “no point in risking a sexually transmitted disease,” even in his 80s. But Mrs. Greenberg’s refined cursive led me to believe their tryst was chaste.

If not Gloria, then who? I considered the possibility of a prostitute but was unable to imagine their point of contact. Times Square? A call girl? Some indigenous woman on his many travels?

Gloria’s letters spanned six months. What had become of Mrs. Greenberg’s and my father’s affair? And did she need to know her former beau was deceased?

Later, I wrote, but my card returned to me: “No Such Occupant.”

In another family, siblings might consult. Collectively, they might decide to shield their widowed mother from information she need not have. Over a drink and after a bawdy laugh or two, they might decide to burn the letters, cremating the tale of Gloria and their randy old dad, her words in ashes like the deceased patriarch himself. In some families, the death of a father might precipitate change, perhaps engender new channels of communication, but these did not open in mine.

I did not disclose the mystery of the twelfth condom, nor the existence of Gloria’s cards, which now burrow in my study, hidden among innocuous correspondence for my child to unearth one day. Honoring his tradition, I hoard my father’s secrets, disclosing only to the page, not to flesh, telling strangers, never my own.

Other imbrications: my mother had an abortion in those illegal days after my brother’s birth, which came right after my sister’s birth, both unplanned. The existence of the abortion was related to my married sister upon the joyous disclosure of her first pregnancy, by way of some obscene warning from my mother about the perils of bearing children before one was ready. Not knowing what to do with such information, my sister unburdened my mother’s secret to me, though not to my brother. Did he know he was a “mistake”? Did my father know of the abortion? My grandmother? Or had my mother nursed this tale in private for 25 years, the words leaking out when she could contain them no longer? Was the abortion confession an oblique directive? It haunted, because the child first born to my sister was to die before his second birthday of an incurable, undetectable genetic disease. Did my mother know my sister told me? My sister forgot she did. Neither woman would ever learn of my own abortion, at 17, a legal, secret procedure I endured alone.

A few years before his death by heart attack – his fifth — my father nearly died of diabetes. A West Coaster, I’d been in Kentucky for a conference and had just returned home Sunday night to a bevy of messages on my answering machine regarding my father’s dire condition in a New York hospital. The friend who’d picked me up from the airport graciously returned the dog to the dogsitter and me to the airport, where, a few hours later, I caught a red-eye. In the morning, my recovering father, still woozy in post-op (after surgery for a superficial wound whose complications nearly killed him) looked at me, the first to arrive – though the East Coast family lived only a few hours away – and said, “You look like a fox.” Had the anesthesia skewed his vocabulary? Or did I, in the dawning light, resemble the actual animal? Or was he using the vernacular, the term for a sexy woman? Did he think I was my mother? To whom could I confide this word?

Later that visit, with my father out of intensive care and clearly on the mend, I suddenly managed the arithmetic regarding the number of months between my parents’ marriage – about whose actual date they had always been fuzzy – and my sister’s birth. “Dad, was Mom pregnant when you got married?” In his hospital pallor, my father laughed loud and hard. “My god!” (Which, in his accent, sounded like “gott!”) “Did it take you all these years to figure that out?”

How many other secrets, like that one, shimmer openly? And why hadn’t my siblings, over the decades, ever questioned a three-month courtship and an anniversary never celebrated? Me, it took 37 years, but my elder sister and brother never asked. Years later, at my mother’s deathbed, when I revealed this fact to my sister, she was flummoxed.

Why did I tell her?

To blame her, indirectly, for our parents’ miserable marriage that, despite an unofficial separation, went on and on until they died, each alone? In 1953, my mother would not have thought to raise a child by herself. Did she then contemplate an abortion instead of marriage? Did my father forbid it? In his refugee’s haste to start an American family, could the pregnancy have been the result of rape?

From his apartment, I took boxes and boxes of papers – letters, finances, notes scrawled in German shorthand. Inscrutable, he was, like the sprawling, handwritten notebook from Berlin in the 1930s, a palimpsest I imagine I might puzzle out one day if I could find a translator for his nearly illegible sentences.

A lover once complained I left every container open – not only the toothpaste but the milk carton, back door and front gate. Why is it I can’t bear locks, and rooms without windows? My sister and brother close themselves up, impervious. Aren’t they curious about our father’s secret life? About mine?

Unlike them, I believe the unspoken and unwritten can be deciphered, each according to her need. In the language of his will, my father was telegraphing me.

“Beloved: you are still young. Make another life.”

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About Annie Dawid

Annie Dawid, is the author of Lily in the Desert: Stories (Carnegie-Mellon University Press 2001) and York Ferry: A Novel (Cane Hill Press, 1993). Annie's new book of short fiction, And Darkness Was Under His Feet: Stories of a Family, is just out from Litchfield Review Press.

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