My father loved to sing. He sang at breakfast. He sang in the shower. He sang in the car. But worst of all, he sang at parties. In front of everyone. He was happiest when we were at a wedding or a bar mitzvah, where a band would be on stage playing the kind of music I hated but grown-ups always seemed to go mushy over. Like a magnet, the microphone beckoned him. He would start to sing his favorite Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett song. I wanted to crawl under a table and die.


*


I'm a travelin' man/Made a lot of stops/All over this world. And in every port/ I own the heart/of at least one lucky girl.


Words took on their own meaning when he sang. The first two lines of this dorky Ricky Nelson song were a reminder to me that he was packing, getting ready for the trip he made twice a month to service his accounts upstate New York. As regional representative for a home appliance distributor based in Long Island City, he was responsible for keeping stores stocked and updating managers on the latest models in vacuum cleaners and air conditioners, TVs and blenders. Once, when I was eight or nine, I asked him to take me along on a trip that coincided with a holiday break from school. The drive, I remember, was long and at one point it rained so hard we had to pull over to the side of the road. My father leaned his head back against the headrest and closed his eyes. "Listen," he said. He began whistling. I closed my eyes, too, thinking that was what he wanted me to do. A truck passed by, splashing the side of the car, startling me. I opened my eyes. My father, still whistling softly, no melody I could recognize, just notes he seemed to be drawing from the rain itself, gently placed his arm on mine.

"Listen," he said again. The rain was slamming against the windshield, like the big rubber hula skirts at the car wash. You couldn't see an inch in front of you. Watch out for the man with the hook, Bobby Taylor said when I told him I was taking this trip with my father. He hides on country roads. Did my father know about the man with the hook in place of an arm, the one who escaped from prison and was never found? The one who Bobby Taylor's big brother swears he saw the night he took Susie Marshak to the pier. They were in his car, just about to kiss, when Susie (according to Bobby Taylor's big brother) let out a scream. Bobby saw the hook coming in through the car window and burned rubber getting away from the pier as quickly as he could. Did my father know about the man with the hook?

"Do you hear the music?" asked my father. I heard no music, only battering rain that seemed to be bringing down the sky with it. "Do you hear the rain singing?" He began tapping his fingers against the steering wheel, whistling again, until the tapping took on a rhythm and the whistling became words: Walk between the raindrops and you won't get wet. The rain began to slow down. I stared out the side window - Walk between the raindrops and you won't get wet - and at the windshield - Walk between the raindrops and you won't get wet - which now looked like a playground slide with tiny silver people gliding down.


*


Everywhere we went they called him the "singing salesman."

"Well if it isn't Jack the singing salesman," said Tim Elmsford when we walked through the door of his hardware store outside of Rochester. He seemed to have trouble forming his words. His wife Nancy came rushing out of the stock room, pencil tucked behind her ear and clipboard in her hand. Her hair, streaked silver and white, was slipping from her bun. At the sight of her, my father began cooing the words to "Nancy with the Laughing Face."

Oh no, I thought. There's no escape from it. When he finally introduced me, and Nancy remarked on how shy I was, so unlike your father, I wanted to say, He's not my father. Really, he's not. My real father, I wanted to say, is the ambassador to Spain. Instead I just stood next to my father, wishing I were invisible.

"Why do you waste your time with this store-to-store peddling?" Nancy asked my father after he convinced her to try some Cuisinarts for the holidays. "Don't get me wrong - Eastern Appliances is very lucky to have you. But you gotta a good voice, Jack - you should do something more, maybe go into show business."

My ears perked up. My real father, I wanted to say, is a movie star. He lives in California.
"That's very kind of you, Nancy," said my father.

"Wanna see something?" Tim asked me. I shrugged, following him to the back of the store. He had a slight limp and his left arm seemed to hang along his side, like a handkerchief falling out of a pocket. The deeper we went into the store, the more it smelled of sawdust and camphor. The shelves along one wall were filled with small wooden boxes that contained screws and nails sorted by size. Tim mumbled something corny about how he handled "the nuts and bolts" part of the business. "When it comes to irons and Cuisinarts and vacuum cleaners," he said, "who knows better than a woman what works?" I smiled to myself. Should I tell him that my father was a better cook than my mother?

He led me behind a curtain, to his workshop, which contained a long table and a box with tools. On the table were miniature houses constructed of nails and wire, along with animals made of paper clips and furniture made from champagne corks. Dogs. Cats. Bears. Horses. A pig.

"I just made this pig," said Tim, holding it up. "You like it?" I nodded politely.

"Took me a long time to do the pig right. First one wasn't quite fat enough - know what I mean?"

I looked more carefully at the sculptures. Even with something as uniform as small paper clips, he'd managed to unbend and bend them into the right shape for each animal. I picked up a dog.

"Bet you like dogs," said Tim. "All girls like dogs." I noticed now how the left side of his face drooped, making him look like he was crying in one eye. My father's voice drifted to the back of the store.

Once I built a railroad/Made it run/Made it race against time.

Nancy began singing with him.

Once I built a railroad/Now it's gone/ Brother, can you spare a dime.

I looked at Tim, at his drooping face and limp left arm. A couple of months back, when my father extended his trip a few extra days, I'd been angry with him. One of his customers had gotten sick, he said. He was just staying to help out a little. When he came home, I didn't talk to him for three days. He'd missed my school play.

"I like the way you did the ears on the dog," I said to Tim. "It reminds me of a beagle."

"Take it," he said. "As a memento."


*

I decided to bring the dog in for 'show and tell' the day I returned from the school break. I told the class about Tim and all the animals he made.

"Does he have a hook for an arm?" Bobby Taylor asked. He seemed to think that bending wire was something only a weird person would do. Someone who would need a hook to help bend the metal. His question got a lot of laughs.

Tamara Robinson asked what my father did. She knew very well what my father did, since he had gotten her family a new color TV at a good price. But her father was a doctor. He had an office in Manhattan. Once, for 'show and tell,' she brought in an x-ray of a baby's lungs. The baby had pneumonia, she said. Her father saved his life.

"My father sells things," I answered.

"What kind of things?" blurted out Jimmy Black. He sat in a rear corner of the room, near the coat closets. He was always slumped in his chair, squirming, trying to find the right angle for his long skinny legs.

"Fishing poles," I said. Everyone laughed. It wasn't what I had meant to say. I'd been staring at Jimmy, at his legs sticking out the side of the desk. They reminded me of fishing poles.

I could feel the heat rise to my face. "Tele-" I stammered. "Televisions and radios and ... and ... and all kinds of things for the house. That's what he sells." But he's not my real father. My real father is an Arabian prince.

"How many TVs you got?" asked Jimmy.

"Two," I whispered, losing heart. I had stood up in front of the room to talk about a man who makes chairs out of champagne cork wire and dogs out of paper clips.

"Do you have one in your room?" asked Tamara. When her family had bought their new twenty-seven-inch TV, they also bought a smaller one for her room. It was supposed to be a surprise Chanukah present. A few days before Chanukah my best friend Danny and I were sitting at the same lunch table as Tamara. She was telling Becky and Linda ("her loyal pets," Danny called them; I called them "her royal pests") about how much she hated surprises. "I know something you don't know," I blurted out. "It's about a surprise for you." Tamara bugged me until I finally told her. Thrilled as she was about getting the TV, she never forgave me for spoiling her surprise.

I glanced over at the empty seat where Danny would have been sitting had she not been home with chicken pox. She would have helped me, given me some cue so I would know what to say to Tamara, aside from the obvious No I do not have a TV in my room. I stared past Danny's seat, to the window. It had started to rain. Hard. I heard a voice. Walk between the raindrops and you won't get wet. And another voice, deeper inside of me, stung with revelation. He uses one hand. Completely ignoring Tamara's question, I started walking around the room to show everybody, close up, the details of the dog. "The man who made this - and all the other little sculptures he makes - can only really use one hand."

"I told you he had a hook," blurted out Bobby.

"How does he do it?" asked Jimmy.

I didn't really know, I said. But I remembered seeing a pair of pliers on the table, and a hammer. And I imagined Tim's almost lifeless hand resting on the work table, managing to grip the pliers just enough to hold the wire in place. And with his other hand, his good one, he shaped his figurines.

After everyone had taken a good look at the dog, I went back to my desk. Mrs. Arnold thanked me for sharing my present from Tim. I looked out the window. It was almost lunchtime. The rain had slowed down. I wanted to go out, during recess, and dance. Between the raindrops.


*

"I'm not going!" I said. "That's all there is to it. If you want to go and watch him make an idiot of himself, be my guest. But count me out." It was 7:30 pm on what would have been a normal school night - homework, talking to Danny on the phone, practicing piano - had my mother not done the most ridiculous thing I could ever have imagined. And now she wanted my complicity.

"We have to go and cheer him on," she said.

"Wrong." I turned my back to her and opened the refrigerator. "You have to go and cheer him on. You're the one who entered him in this stupid contest. You're the one who has to go and cheer him on." I wasn't even hungry. I knew my mother hated when I kept the refrigerator door open, trying to decide on something to eat. I just wanted to change the conversation.

"Close the refrigerator," she said. She was so predictable. And I was so smart.

"I'm hungry."

"You're not hungry," she said. "You're trying to avoid the issue." She closed the refrigerator door and barricaded herself in front of it. I stormed out of the kitchen, into my room. Notebooks and textbooks were sprawled across my bed. I sat down, picked up my social studies textbook, began reading. My mother came in, without knocking. I didn't even look up at her.

"I'm leaving in five minutes," she said. "If you don't come with me, you'll pay. In some way or other, you'll pay." My mother was a small woman, with a deep voice. At fourteen I was already taller than her. Somehow she still seemed bigger than me.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I heard the front door close behind her. I plunged into my homework. Only I couldn't concentrate. All I kept thinking about was my father on stage at my high school, singing, because my mother had decided to enter him in a local talent contest. The prize was $2,000 plus a contract to sing jingles for a company that was promoting a new electric razor. The way my mother saw it, the jingle was just one step up the ladder toward a contract with a record company. My father laughed when she told him she'd entered him in the contest. To him, the idea of singing on stage before a packed house of friends, neighbors and relatives was pure fun. To me it was pure embarrassment.

I tried to put it out of my mind, immerse myself in the Civil War. Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" (unfortunately) gave way to "All of Me" and "Fly Me to the Moon" and "I've Got a Crush on You" and all the other songs he'd been practicing all week. He wasn't sure which one he would sing. "You could say you're sick," I suggested, in one last-ditch effort to make him change his mind before he had left earlier in the evening. "Then there's no decision to be made." He pretended he didn't hear me. "I never know what I'm going to sing until I have the microphone in my hand." He pulled his baseball cap from a hook near the front door and walked out, whistling. His whistling lingered, transformed itself into words.

Once there was a silly old ram
Thought he'd punch a hole in a dam
No one could make that ram scram
He kept buttin' that dam

Reflexively, I started singing the refrain - 'Cause he had hi-i-igh hopes/He had hi-i-igh hopes - quickly shut myself up. It was the first song my father had ever taught me. That whistling was not intended for me, I told myself. It was his version of a musical pep talk. He was singing for himself. Not for me.

I went over to my piano, started practicing some scales. The piano had been a surprise. (Unlike Tamara, I really do relish surprises.) I'd started taking piano lessons in school, when I was in fourth grade. The teacher gave us a cardboard keyboard, folded into three panels. We were supposed to practice correct fingering on that quiet keyboard. Only when I visited my father's aunt Esther or when I played for my music teacher in school did I hear the real notes. When Esther moved to Florida, she decided not to take the piano with her. It was waiting for me when I came home from school one afternoon. Now I could hear real notes all the time.

I opened my music book to Für Elise, the piece I played more than any other. It suddenly struck me as ironic that my first year learning the piano was spent in the same silence as Beethoven's final years composing. The phone rang.

Danny screamed in my ear. "He won! Your father won the contest!" I didn't say anything.

"You never told me what a good voice he had," she went on. "You should have been there."

"I don't need to hear this," I said, hanging up.

I was in bed, pretending to be asleep, when my parents got home. My mother sat down on the bed next to me.

"You should have been there," she said. "They let him sing two songs, he was so good." She normally kissed me on the forehead, whether or not she believed I was sleeping. Tonight she just sighed and left my room.

My father came in next.

"I sang to you," he said. "I figured it was supposed to be a jingle contest. And what sounds more like a jingle than "High Hopes" - right? When I won, and they asked me to sing again, I looked out at the audience, and I saw your mother beaming. So I sang, 'I've Got a Crush on You.'" He patted me on the back, then kissed me good night.

For the next three months my father was away more than he was home. Each time he called, his voice sounded more hoarse. He never did get a recording contract, though he did make a lot of money for the owner of Eastern Appliances, who became sole distributor of the razor in the Northeast. For that, my father got a bonus and a promotion. The promotion had him traveling even more, and for longer periods of time. At first my mother complained about how much he was away. Her complaints soon gave way to a noticeable interest in my piano playing. She began buying sheet music to songs she loved, mostly from Broadway shows and Walt Disney movies. "Will you learn this piece for me?" she asked. At first I resisted, maintaining that my classical repertoire kept me busy enough. Then one day, while I sat at the piano, she said to me, "You ought to lighten up a little bit." It was a dreary Saturday and my father was at a home appliances conference in California. "Send in the Clowns" was staring me in the face. I began playing. This is too corny, I thought. And it was. But it had seemed so quiet in the apartment, quieter than ever. Or was it always that way when my father was gone?

 

*

This is not me, I kept thinking as I took my bow. It can't be. The real me would crumble on stage at the sight of all those people watching. Waiting for me to take my place at the piano. When you're up there, whispered my father, don't think about anyone. Don't think about anything. Just play. He could hardly talk anymore, he had these nodes on his vocal cords. For two years his voice had steadily been getting worse. The doctors wanted to remove the nodes surgically. But there was a risk - small, they said - that he might lose his voice totally. My father was not a gambling man.

This is not me, I kept thinking as I closed my eyes, breathed deeply, conjuring the first notes of the piece I would play. The real me would fumble through the music, which was the reason I did not want to take part in this recital, but Mrs. Jones, my piano teacher, insisted. I was her star pupil, she said. I was talented. I had to learn to get comfortable playing in front of people.

I placed my fingers over the keys, immersed myself in the deep, resonant silence surrounding me. Started playing. It was a favorite piece of mine, Chopin's "Prelude in D-flat Major," otherwise known as "Raindrop."

 
     
     

 

 

 "My Father's Voice" © 2002 by Deborah Batterman
 
   
 

 Original Graphic, this page, © 2002 by Emmanuela Copal de León
 

 

     
 

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