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  • Fields of Empire
  • Joan Silber (bio)

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[End Page 132]

My father, who meant well about some things and not about others, died at seventy, not that old. He'd been living in our house in New Jersey, with caretakers around him, and in the front window was a bumper sticker that said, Get US Out! ! United Nations. He'd [End Page 133] once been a member of the very far-right John Birch Society and maybe always was (we didn't keep in close touch). In our years together, when the Cold War was still on, my father took pride in never being duped by the insidious plots of those trying to turn the US into a socialist hell, a pride that rode on urgency. Every day he woke up to important work. The sticker did not look that old, actually.

My mother was now long since married to someone else, but my sister and my brother lived nearby. How green and hilly the countryside looked, how pretty these older suburbs seemed. The maple trees in the front of our house had grown into vast leafy giants. I'd flown in from another continent, and when they saw me, my sibs said, "Oh! You're here!" as if they hadn't believed my voice on the phone. We were gathered on the front porch.

I was glad enough to see them. Cecie, my sister, was looking a little dried out but not bad, and my brother, Dillon, was portly in a friendly way. "This is it," Cecie said, which meant she was really very sad.

"It is it," I said. He was my father; I had my sadness too.

"He had the life he wanted," my brother said. That was enough, we didn't need to go any deeper into it.

I was the youngest, and my parents' marriage was already in trouble by the time I appeared, so my father neglected me a little, which was a good thing. I knew from what he said at dinner that a dangerous New World Order was being planned by people who might seem nice. It was 1961 when I started first grade, and the Iron Curtain was still down. I was too shy to be a pain in elementary school, but I must've uttered these opinions enough that people knew what I was.

My one friend was a boy named Will—we were Will and Bill—whose parents were in the thing too. We were obsessed with cars, both of us, and all we wanted to do was play with all the toy ones we had, race them, make champions of them; sometimes we gave them names and had stories for them. We went through a phase of constructing model ones too, a hundred plastic parts to be glued and painted. We were little pedants of the auto industry, we knew a lot. I had a dream that someday I'd drive a car in a secret army that shot at the hidden communist enemies of my country; I'd fire with deadly aim and speed away.

Before seventh grade, Will's family decided to move to California. We said we would write, but we didn't. I had no other friends, and I was suddenly lonely in a way I hadn't been before—the nights were the worst—and that was when I became a reader. Technically, I was only [End Page 134] allowed certain kinds of books, but it wasn't that hard to smuggle things into my room. The maid did the cleaning, and my taste in literature was nothing to her. I had a library card; my prep school made us each get one. I loved any murder mystery, however old or young the level of it was, and I loved Dickens, which they might have thought was harmless anyway.


In seventh grade a cute girl named Sally in my English class asked me what kind of music I liked. I said easy listening. It was already well into the '60s, and neither of my parents allowed jungle music in the house. Sally started me on Motown...


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