Begging Letter

by Angela Woodward

…..My brother wrote my father a letter asking for $50,000 to get him out of his troubles for about two months. My sister got hold of the document and copied it for the other six of us, sending it out with a covering note saying that this was a matter for the whole family to decide on, as any money my brother got would be less for the rest of us, eventually. My brother wrote that he was being sued for back child support, that his car had been damaged by thugs when he had unfortunately left it overnight in a poorly lit parking lot downtown, and that his house was too small for the new baby and his wife’s kids all, and that every morning when he woke up, for one minute he was peaceful, quiet in the dark, but as soon as he stirred, these problems began pounding him on the head, hammering on him like he was a piece of metal that had to be bent and straightened and bent again endlessly. He needed to hire a lawyer to deal with the child support, as well as a financial advisor who would straighten things out for the future, with the step-children, and he needed some time during the day when he was not at work and not at home with the children crawling all over him so that he could write his application to law school, where he hoped to specialize in international finance.
…..“When I finish my law degree,” he wrote, “I’ll be able to bring off negotiations between German companies and Swiss companies doing business in America,” and he could take his family to Zurich or Basel, just as soon as he completed his degree. There he would live by the lake, and every morning look out on the shining water while drinking very strong, small cups of coffee. The children would file off to school in their uniforms, the tallest in front, the baby toddling along last, her hand in her half-sister’s. His wrist would be decorated with a slim gold watch, and he’d check the time. He would find that there was enough—yes, enough time, maybe to look at the waves, even to go down to the shore with his wife. They might take off their shoes and step their feet in the water. The water in Switzerland was undoubtedly very cold, and their veins would send chilled blood hurtling up their legs so that they would both gasp, husband and wife, and leap out, feeling ill and shaken. But as soon as they were warm again, back in the house, they would feel enormously pleased and contented.
…..“My future path is very clear,” he wrote, “if only you will lend me $50,000 so I can take a leave from work for six weeks or two months, to deal with the lawsuit and the financial advisor and write the application to law school.” Every day, he wrote, his ex-wife said something, just a little thing, maybe a cough or a sigh when his name was mentioned, that would soon turn his children against him. He hardly had room for them in his tiny house, with the new baby and the older two, the teenagers, who after all had been there first, had not asked their mother to fall in love with him and marry him so that they could all cram into the little house, more of a cottage really, almost a cabin. The ceilings were too low for bunkbeds, so his kids had to sleep on the floor when they were allowed to visit at all. They were not comfortable in his house, and often got sick on the day they were supposed to come over. They would stop coming altogether, if he could not borrow this money that he needed to set everything straight. He would vanish from their lives, even though only two miles separated his new wife’s house from their mother’s. They might one day pass their father on the street and not even recognize him.
…..All this was odd to read, as our father had only been out of jail for three years, after his business partnership broke up, and he was more likely to owe various people $50,000 than to be able to lend it out to my brother. My sister’s grim, cramped handwriting on the note she had clipped to the front of the Xerox warned me to consider this matter carefully. It concerned our inheritance. But surely she knew we were none of us going to inherit anything at all, the old man still living in a halfway house for schizophrenic men, though that wasn’t exactly his condition, our mother living in Iowa with a much quieter, safer husband who thought her wild children were a bad influence on her. Our childhood home had been sold years ago, with everything in it, including the photo albums, frog piggy banks, broken umbrellas, and quilted potholders that had populated its domesticity. Even the street had been altered, bulldozed into a cul-de-sac, so the last time I tried to visit, I had to go in through a side street which seemed totally unfamiliar. The new owners had ripped out the old yew hedge, and lines of marigolds soldiered out front in a foreign, glassy sunshine.
…..One summer night when I was twenty, I had ridden my bicycle down the street singing, on my way to visit the handsome boy I then got mixed up with for the next five years or so. I passed my father. He was getting out of a car, not his own car, slamming the door and fumbling in his pocket for change for the meter, though it was after six, on a street near the Clearwood Tavern. I saw him and stopped singing mid-syllable, an “ah” dwindling behind me as I whipped on down the street toward John’s. And though he met my eyes, he didn’t speak or wave. This was before anything happened with his business and our mother, though it might have been in progress in some form. I didn’t stop, just went faster and faster, and started singing again once I rounded the corner. I must have known in that instant that all was not right with him, that he shouldn’t have been heading for the Clearwood Tavern with whoever it was in that car that wasn’t his. But I never expected him to stop me, to grip my handlebars and ask me how I was, the middle of his three daughters, where was I going, was I well? The most he ever would have done was nodded, maybe waved, and he did not nod, did not wave, but went on shoving a nickel into the slot in the meter.
…..So I imagined my brother’s children skating past him, running after their friends, while he stood on the porch of the house that was too small for them, the radio in the kitchen continuing to jabber to itself. This seemed to me natural, perhaps regrettable, but what was expected. When I was eleven, my brother had taken me with him to a festival at the Greek Orthodox church. He was six years older, and went out every evening with his friends Brian and Mary, while the younger kids moped around the house or dug in the woods at the end of the street. But he liked me especially, out of all the siblings, and so took me off with them to a tent erected across the entire parking lot of St. Nicolas’s. He told me the retsina was not wine but a non-alcoholic drink that would allow me to combat the great heat and humidity. I must drink two plastic cups of it, he said, and he was paying good money for me, a dollar a cup, so I complied. Why did I always comply, ever after and even today, looking up, eyes wide, from my desk, saying “yes, of course,” to all these people who will not only interrupt me, take my living away, and extort my resources, but who might physically tear me in half? As soon as I had downed the retsina, we all got up, my brother and his friends and two men who had sat down at our table, and went to dance in a wild circle. Everyone who was not drinking at the tables was whirling on the asphalt, arms linked, staggering to the left, whooping, then bending the other way, winding back, the simple grapevine step too complex for the most inebriated so that the dance was a continuous mass of people falling on each other and being dragged back up to fall the other way in the dark, the music blaring from speakers on piled-up picnic tables. Because I was small compared to my brother and his friends and all the adult men and women, this lurching left and right swept my feet off the pavement and seemed about to tear my arms from my sockets. Every time the circle changed direction, my head snapped sideways. My brother’s friend leaned down over me and laughed into my hair.
…..I should have been grateful, my brother said. I could have stayed at home doing nothing, but he had brought me out, paid for my ticket. Look at these happy people, he said, gesturing with the retsina. None of the other kids had any idea a party like this was going on. “You should be grateful,” he said. And I suppose I was grateful, though I nevertheless felt harmed.

Angela Woodward’s short fiction has been published in Salt Hill, Ninth Letter, elimae, Diagram, Gulf Coast and elsewhere. She is the author of two books from Ravenna Press, the collection The Human Mind (2007) and a novel, End of the Fire Cult (2010).


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