How can I start an uprising when I don’t have any space?
HOME FURNISHINGS BY THADDEUS RUTKOWSKI 34THPARALLEL MAGAZINE ISSUE 07
At school I got an assignment to write about my family. “Tell us who your parents are, where they’re from,” the teacher said.
“In your case,” she said, looking at me, “it should be interesting.”
“Because he’s a freak,” a student said.
At home my mother brought me to our Frank Lloyd Wright cabinet—three finished-wood cubes that stood next to each other. The boxes were perfectly crafted. One cube had swinging doors and shelves; the other two had sliding drawers. A geometric decoration—a filigree—ran around the border of each cube.
My mother pulled open a top drawer and took out a handful of black-and-white photos. I could smell the wood of the cabinet on the paper prints. She held out a photo with scalloped edges. “That was your grandmother,” she said. “She was a glamour girl.”
I looked at the image of my father’s mother. She was wearing a bathing suit and was sitting on a beach.
Another photo showed my father’s father wearing a leather helmet and throwing a football. “He was good with people,” my mother said.
I picked up a photo of my mother’s parents. They had Asian features but were wearing Western clothes. “My father was a minister in a YMCA,” my mother said. “But when Mao took over, religion was banned. I was lucky I was gone before that happened. My father wasn’t so lucky.”
Another print showed my mother as a young woman. She was wearing a shiny dress with a curlicue pattern. “Traditional formal clothing,” she explained.
I picked up a photo of my father as a young man standing next to a station wagon. He was wearing a wool sweater, khaki pants and glasses with thick-plastic frames. I turned the photo over and read the caption he had written: “My first car!”
On top of the Frank Lloyd Wright cabinet was a ceramic figure of an old man wearing a robe. Over his shoulders he bore a stick, the kind used for carrying water. But instead of buckets, large coins dangled from both ends of the stick. “We called him the Mad Monk,” my mother said. “He was more interested in money than anything else.”
When she left the room, I opened the cabinet and took out a film can. My hobby was making 16-millimeter movies. I opened the can and removed a reel. I pried the reel apart and took out a small foil-wrapped chunk of brown paste. I checked to see that the nugget was untouched. Then I put it in my pocket.
When I walked past my father in the house, he startled me by speaking. “I can’t do anything when you kids are around,” he said. “I wanted to start a revolution with my art. But instead I’m a chauffeur and nursemaid. I’m getting out.”
My mother overheard him. “Where will you go?” she asked.
“I’m going to jump-start my car. I’m going to buy a gallon of gas. Then I’m going to drive to the nearest bar. I’m going to sit there in peace. But I’ll need some money. Can you give me five dollars?”
I went into the middle room upstairs. The unheated space held a ping-pong table and some accessories. I picked up a paddle and practiced hitting a ball straight up, then slapping it forward when it came down.
My mother came in. She picked up a paddle and wrapped a thumb and forefinger around the handle. Using the penholder grip, she worked the paddle like a shovel.
My shots were no match for my mother’s sidespins. When she hit the ball, it hissed across the table and curved out of reach.
When he came home, my father was in a dark mood. He was also unsteady on his feet. He banged into the Frank Lloyd Wright cabinet with his hip. “Who put this here?” he asked.
“You did,” my mother said.
“I need room to move! I can’t walk through here. How can I start an uprising when I don’t have any space?”
“Maybe you should get rid of some of your books,” my mother said.
“ ‘Maybe you should get rid of some of your books’,” my father repeated in a singsong voice.
“It would save money.”
“I don’t need money!” my father shouted. “If I need cash I’ll ask you, or I’ll ask my mother. She’s good for it and she’ll be good for even more when she dies.”
With that my father kicked the cabinet. His foot took a strip of wood off one of the edges. Then he went into his studio, where presumably he could create the art to spark a change.
In school I told the class about my mother. “She grew up in a YMCA,” I said. “Her father was a minister. He was educated here, but when he went back to China he was sort of a missionary.”
“That’s freaky,” a student whispered.
“It’s nerdy,” said another.
“It’s chinky,” said another.
I decided not to speak about my father.
I went outside with my nugget of brown paste. I crossed the road to a grassy area. I wanted to try smoking the substance, but before I could I saw some boys I recognized. They were sitting on the ground where the grass formed a hill.
“You found the wrong crowd,” one of them said.
Presently, my father showed up with my brother and sister. My brother was carrying a leather football. The four of us paired up and began a game. The only option was to hike the ball to the other person on the team. That person, in turn, would pass the ball to the one who had centered it. Both defenders would chase the receiver and try to make contact with their hands. After a while we switched teams to balance the score.
The boys watched us from their position on the ground.
“Do you want to play?” my father asked them.
“Play?” one of them repeated.
In the evening I went to the Frank Lloyd Wright cabinet and picked up the strip of wood my father had kicked off. My brother and sister were watching television. When they saw me with the splinter, one of them asked, “What are you doing?”
“I’m putting it back,” I said.
I found a glue bottle and dabbed white liquid onto the wood. I pressed the strip back in place at the edge of the cabinet. But the piece didn’t fit exactly. A crack was visible. The geometric pattern on the border was interrupted by a fault.
During the night I could hear the clock that sat on the cabinet. It was a chiming clock, a gift from my father’s mother. It signaled each quarter-hour by playing part of a song. It played one phrase on the quarter hour, two phrases on the half-hour, and three when 45 minutes had elapsed. On the completion of an hour, I heard the whole song. Fifteen minutes later, the routine began again.
I grew up in central Pennsylvania and I am a graduate of Cornell University and The Johns Hopkins University. As a performance poet I have read my work in Hong Kong, Budapest, Berlin, London, Dublin. thaddeusrutkowski.com