- In the Mood, a Prologue and Finale
Mom said to me, "Dad isn't feeling well. He didn't sleep last night."
I heard the pacing. The boards squeaked. He moved from bathroom to kitchen. He set off the dismal pipes that girdled our walls.
But he looked good to me in the morning. No evidence of hard nights.
Eyes wide open, even though shadowed. On his feet, talking. He'd already finished the newspaper. He celebrated his heroes—Ted Williams, finishing a big season; FDR, warning the Japanese not to push us in the Pacific; John L. Lewis, demanding a living wage for coal miners.
He should have been down opening the store, but he was having a great time releasing the voices that had raced in his head all night. He swayed back on his heels, his arms swinging free, his head pulled back for laughs, the big Adam's apple bobbing.
Mom said, "Time to open up. Delivery men due at seven, Eph."
He said to us, eyes glittering, the swarthy face illuminated, "I wait to be delivered," an explosion of laughter. "The day comes," he said, "when I shall be elevated to my station and its duties. Meanwhile"—he bowed to Mom—"the grocery, my dear Ruth."
She warned me, "It's going to change. Don't be disappointed. Enjoy him while he's in the mood."
She called it "being in the mood." I knew what she meant, and resented her not speaking plainly.
When I left for school, he was outside on the walk, ushering customers into the store. Mom later came down to take over the register and check the orders. While in the mood, he was too exalted to tend to business and messed up the charge book and botched the orders.
At the same time, he was full of joy and invention. He lighted up, the mouth supple, his smile flowering, the extravagant beaked nose somehow appropriate to the spirit of the brimming eyes. He looked skinny but he had a powerful grip.
He claimed to be preparing a history of the Smiths. It was time, he said, we made ourselves known. We were a remarkable people. Ancient, he said. And then giving up his apparent seriousness, he worked out a genealogy that led to Homer and Ancient Greece. He derived Smith from Zeus, [End Page 106]
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[End Page 107]
the Z speeding up and collapsing into Sm by a rule he called the "Smith sibilant," the eu losing its voice when the tongue slackened in grief at our fall and idled on the floor of the mouth, barely managing the almost mute i of Smith. He called that process the "Smith elision." He found permutations of our name in the lists of Trojans. He appeared again in the Aeneid. The joke was elaborated; it went on and on, and when it seemed as if he was stuck in the posture of a clown, he changed tone and there he was, again the true believer.
Mom insisted on straightening me out. We had no history. We were anon ymous. There was no trace of us in any book. We had no one to mourn, nothing to recall. They were both born in Chicago. Her family was wiped out in the flu epidemic of nineteen eighteen. His family had drifted out of sight. That was the true Smith elision.
She wanted to prepare me for the shift in mood when he was no longer a source of energy and pleasure. He would begin drawing everything back into himself, leaching the air of joy, sucking us into his abysmal suspicions.
When he finally peaked and was looking down, bound to his rock by a spiderweb...