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How Catholic

By Terese Svoboda

You’ve seen the movie: white convertible, uncle with slicked black hair, woman with Cleopatra eye shadow and a neckline, poodle instead of child in back. Okay, two poodles, big ones. Peach-colored, smelling of money. Not sprayed peach but given some pill the way pet doctors, even real doctors, dispensed them so freely then, some pill that wasn’t trouble.

Did I say the dogs were four hands high? I was a neck taller and had just learned how horses were measured, fell off one and looked up at all those hands. These poodles leapt out the second the convertible pulled into our sickle of a driveway, trotted around us like horses. They didn’t lick.

We stood, all assembled, probably an accident of summer chores, and gawked. Six of us, with three more on the way--well, really one on the way. I wished for triplets, though my mother would have them singly. Triplets! That would be fun. Instant Kennedys.

Mom came from seven siblings herself—four brothers--but no uncle ever visited. This one—the first—had hair like Mom’s: thick strewn and strong, willed flat but wind wild from the open car. Its glaring white metal sheen set off the woman about to be released. Skin cream-powdered-white, she did not move until he leaned over her and wrung the door handle open. Honeypot, he said but not the way you would to a wife.

She turned her kohl-rimmed coal-black eyes to him. Get out and open it, she said so we could all hear.
What a surprise, Mom said. Dad already had his hand stuck in over the car door. Not since our wedding, he was saying, long time, where’re you on your way to? The rest of us were struck dumb, the better to hear.

He had three kids of his own, lore I was privy to, having helped Dad write Christmas cards making fun of the ones other wives send out in boasting. No one mentioned that card-like state during their overnight stay, how long Mom whispered she could stand it while Dad mixed drinks loudly, but not too loud. Or was it their decision, the two of them arrayed at our barbecue, meat flesh sizzling in Western welcome, the best piece offered and refused by the woman feeding the juicy bits to the dogs, eating only the French bread, as if she were French. Dolce vita she did say once and laughed like Mom had been there too. Everyone drank but us.

He looked like her father said Dad to no one.

I cleaned the bathroom after they left, picked up her towel from the floor. Two half moons of green eye shadow over smudged caterpillars of black dirtied it, a shroud of Turin. I doctored the stains with straight All and stuffed it into the washer. I knew better than to present it to Mom as a problem.

It wasn’t much later when Mom hatched out those last three singly, year after year after year, one retarded, two otherwise, then went on to age well in a gold Cadillac Dad bought her, thick leather, seats heated, windows sensing the dark and light of life passing by so quickly. Eventually she said to all of us assembled: I have wasted my life.

My uncle never returned.

Terese Svoboda is the author of ten books of prose and poetry, most recently the memoir, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent, 2007 winner of the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize.



photo by Dinty W. Moore