room full of strangers
fiction by mark tulin
My father's lover, Rosalie Chalinski, greeted me in the crowded living room, a room that looked more like a Christian clubhouse than a warm, comfortable place to rest your feet and watch TV.
Mike, your father's in the dinning room. He's been in a coma for several days.
My father was once a very strong man, able to lift hundred pound bags of potatoes with ease. He had Popeye forearms and a big, round Mr. Clean bald head. That day in the living room I saw him as a shriveled-up snake.
I tried to feel sympathy or remorse, but all I felt that day was the annoying presence of strangers in a room where my dying father lay unconscious.
It was hard for me not to feel anger for my father. He was a lifelong womanizer, a lover of pornography, and a frequent customer of local bordellos.
When he was a little boy he had green eyes and a head full of curly brown hair. He made money hawking Hershey bars on a Pottsville street corner. He moved to Philly after his mother's divorce and worked at her neighborhood luncheonette on Girard Avenue making soda from seltzer and flavored syrup. One day he dropped his white apron, quit high school and went to work at a lighting factory in Bristol with his best friend. He got his GED and went to night school at Temple University to become a draftsman. But after a few years of working for someone, he became itchy to get into his family's produce business.
When I looked at Morton Lapides gasping for air, I saw images of a person's life that I knew as a child from a photo album. Before he met my mother, he wore a woolen Army uniform and served in the Korean War as a quartermaster. He doled out Army supplies, and spent much of his free time with Italian prostitutes that he paid in bars of soap. He also took his Kodak camera and shot pictures of the Eiffel tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the hundreds of crosses in fields of the Normandy American Cemetery. He was a man with an artistic inclination, but he chose the more practical route when he decided to marry my mother. Lily was a beautiful woman who some said resembled Elizabeth Taylor, but with a few screws loose. His mother noticed this right away and warned my father, but Mort was too far down the marriage path to turn back.
The strange people in the room loved Mort because he gave them free red delicious apples and topped off their strawberry baskets. Because somebody gives you free fruit doesn't mean you should idolize them like a Pope. All this love for Mort made me sick.
I detached from the strangers by watching TV, staring at happy people eating greasy McDonald's hamburgers, and then watching unhappy people taking Prilosec for acid indigestion. My stomach churned and growled with each commercial. I asked Rosalie for a Prilosec or a Zantac, but before she could get one from the medicine cabinet, I barfed all over the couch. I hadn't puked since I was in third grade, since the time I ate too many chilidogs at Coney Island.
As Rosalie wiped off my vomit-soaked cheeks, I gazed at my father's sweaty, pale face with his frogmouth taking short, bubbly breaths. With each exhale there was a pop, like a cork popping. Why isn't he dead yet? I wondered. What's keeping him going?
Just a few months ago, Mort was waking up at three in the morning, putting on his work clothes, and traveling to South Philly to buy fruits and vegetables. The Food Distribution Center was an open-air market inhabited by crude oddballs who used the f-word like golfers used birdie and par. My father fit into this foul-mouthed environment because he was the perfect asshole.
He'd walk along the platform of the market haggling with the sellers and calling them jerk offs if they charged too much. He hired a homeless guy to help him load his truck and gave him a wrinkled ten dollar bill, just enough to keep his wine habit alive for another day.
Once the truck was packed tight, he drove north on I-95 to his spot at the corner of Roosevelt Boulevard and Harrison Avenue; he'd huckster the produce until dark, crouching in the back of the cab, putting fruit on a scale, and ringing up the sales on his tiny cash register.
Morton Lapides was born to sell fruits and vegetables. It was in his DNA. The juice of blood oranges ran through his veins. He'd dream of skids of 90-pound crates of cantaloupes from Mexico, and smile as he loaded them onto a blue hand truck and carted them to his truck.
Rosalie and my father were living together even though he was still married to my mother. The two were not discreet. They celebrated shacking-up while my mother was alone in a duplex apartment, just three blocks down the street, waiting for her husband to come home.
Your father's never going to come out of the coma, Rosalie told me while I looked at my father making those popping sounds with his lips.
How long has he?
The doctor doesn't know for sure, Rosalie said while tears poured down her cheeks.
Were they crocodile tears? Was she happy that my father was dying? Could she secretly be planning a financial windfall after he excluded me from the will and put her in?
He wanted to talk to you, she said, but you were too angry with him.
She rubbed me the wrong way, but I didn't make a scene. I bided my time until I could be with my father alone.
My father had a terrible childhood, an alcoholic father and a mother so frugal that she bought him clothes two sizes too big. When Rosalie saw him alone in the truck, not only did she see a wounded soul, but she also saw a man who needed love and attention.
She swooped in like a barracuda. She went to Mort's produce truck every day and stayed there for hours. She brought him pots of beef stew, baked beans and homemade potato pirogies. She soon became a part time employee and the customers mistook her for Mort's wife. She gave him pleasure while he gave her the daddy figure that she lacked.
Rosalie managed his business, bought him clothes, clipped his nose hairs and soaked the stains out of his dentures with Polident. I understood that my lonely father needed someone. I only wished that he left my mother the right way, got a divorce, and settled everything legally.
The closer my father got to Rosalie, the more I distanced from him. I didn't want to condone their reprehensible affair.
Do you want some homemade chocolate chip cookies? a woman with a big white cross around her neck asked.
She held a King James Bible under her right arm and touched my shoulder with her left hand. She recited passages from the bible to me, something from Zechariah, Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the LORD of hosts, but I was too busy trying to figure out everything that was happening to me that day to appreciate it. Her religious support and chocolate chip cookies were the last things I needed.
You know, she said, your father's going to live forever. He found Jesus and he's going to be up there.
She looked to the heavens. All I could see was the water stains on the ceiling.
I'm praying to Jesus for your salvation. Kneel down and pray with me, she invited.
No, I snarled, removing her hand from my shoulder. I'm Jewish and I don't feel comfortable saying Christian prayers.
I pray with Jews all the time, A smiling man named Ed interrupted. Everyone can pray to Jesus.
He gave me a back rub and squeezed my neck until I heard something crack.
Come over to the church on Sunday. We're having a barbecue after the service and rides for the kids.
I'm Jewish, I kept repeating. I don't go to Christian churches.
That's Ok, he said. Your dad was Jewish and he loved our church.
I didn't want to offend any of these people even though they were offensive to me. They assumed that I needed salvation, but that was the last thing I wanted.
One woman hugged me close to her breast. Another held my hand and a few other people in the room offered bibles and rides to the church on Sunday.
The room began to close in on me. The windows were shut and the heat turned up. The TV played reruns of Leave it to Beaver without the sound. As the night wore on, I could see my father's comatose body slowly melting away.
I wanted to make amends with my dying father, but it was impossible. I couldn't get close enough to touch his hand or to feel his cold forehead because of all the hovering people.
It felt like yesterday when he was vibrant and alive and I couldn't wait till he got home so I could rub his bald head. I grabbed my Richie Ashburn glove and we tossed a baseball in the backyard. We went to Dante's pizza every Saturday night and ordered two big cheese steaks and ate them standing at the counter.
I remembered the time he took me to Connie Mack Stadium on Lehigh Avenue in the early 60s. We drove there in his old sky blue Cadillac with the big fins on the back. We saw the Chicago Cubs play the Phillies that night, and watched Ernie Banks smack a homer over the Coca-Cola sign in left field.
So many of Mort's stories ran through my head. That crazed juvenile delinquent who jumped on his car when he drove past the Daniel Boone School. The night two big guys sucker-punched him when he got out of his car to mail a letter. The story of the co-worker who accidentally severed his arm in heavy machinery; my father thinking fast, threw his coat over the severed arm, stopped the bleeding and saved his life.
When I was a kid, Mort was a hero to me.
He was a hero regardless of how many stolen bushels of peppers he accepted from thieving scoundrels. He was a hero no matter how many skanky whores he slept with. It didn't matter that dozens of porn magazines were stored in the tiles of the drop ceiling. Sure he paid Mafioso protection money in exchange for Italian cold cuts and cheese. But when I was a kid, none of that mattered.
I loved him anyway.
But as he lay dying in the dining room of a narrow row house, I felt the opposite of love. I tried to think of him as a cute little boy growing up in the brutal winter of Northeastern Pennsylvania so I wouldn't hate him so much. I tried to remember the moments that he was kind and loving but they were too few and far between. Instead, I just stared at him with contempt from the living room, a man who would soon turn to ashes poured into a cremation urn.
I don't know how long I stayed in that house. I don't remember all the people that came up to me and said how wonderful my father was. They were people that my father knew, but they would always be strangers to me.
The strangers didn't care about how I felt and what I needed, they just wanted to dip me in holy water and cleanse my spirit. They wanted me to carry a cross up the hill and rise from the dead or something equally painful. I just wanted to see my father. I didn't want to be saved or become a born again Christian. I just wanted to be alone with my dying father and try to make amends.
When I realized that I would never get that opportunity, I bolted for the door and ran away like I was running from a scary dream. The first thing I did when I got home was to turn on the TV and lower the volume.
The anger was overwhelming. I wanted to get rid of it. My father was dying, yet the only thing I could think about was what he did to my mother and me.
I got down on my knees and prayed. I prayed to God to heal me from all the pain my father inflicted on me.
I didn't pray like a Christian, the way the strangers wanted me to pray, but I prayed to the one God that I grew up praying to. He was the God that I believed could hear me even when I was only thinking. He was the one person that I knew who wouldn't hurt me.
He was the only father I trusted.