From Haight Street to Land’s End (an excerpt)
by Christie Svane
“Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, it’s the Touch Method,” my father explains, pulling hand-over-hand on the steering wheel, hitting the chrome bumper of the car behind us, grimacing as he squeezes our old Ford station wagon into the spot in front of the butcher shop.
“That’s not how Mom does it.”
His voice gets louder. “Listen, I’ve been driving since before your mother was born. Come on.” He leaves the key in the ignition, flips open his silver lighter and lights a Pall Mall before getting out.
The Saturday morning light on Haight Street looks like milk pouring down the faces of the buildings. I feel like my shoes will get wet as I climb out of the car. In my memory the street is dead quiet until my father pulls open the glass shop door, holding it for me to go in first, and the butcher shop sounds come tumbling out over me, like a wave spilling into the street.
Everywhere he takes me, my father makes me walk in first. “The only way to meet the world is head on,” he says. “Experience everything at least once. Stick your neck out; you might learn something.”
He’s standing with his hands in his back pockets, his elbows with the egg-shaped leather patches over the worn spots jutting into the air. His smile is so broad it reveals his one gold tooth far back in his mouth. Above his nose – bent slightly to the left by running into his brother’s fist when he was nine – his eyes are the color of the bay, edged by a web of tiny hills and valleys that deepen when he laughs. His eyebrows are rust colored brambles, but the sand on his cheeks, that scrapes when he kisses me, is white.
As soon as we walk in, the metallic smell of blood bites my nose and the whump! of cleavers on chopping blocks sound like someone’s mad. As another customer leaves, my father steps up to the glass fronted counter that looks like an aquarium without water, the fish now red roasts and white tripe and pink pork chops in neat parsley-lined rows. His voice bounces off the white tile as he jokes with the butcher, and I wonder how someone can laugh with blood spattered across their white coat, and a rabbit hanging dead on a hook behind them.
My father asks for head cheese – slick and shiny like clear jello holding together a mosaic of pink and grey meat trapped inside it – bacon sliced extra thick, rullepølsa – Danish cured lamb rolled into a spiral held tight with string – sliced extra thin, and a ham hock that looks like an old brown shoe – for the split pea soup we’ll make in his mother’s Dutch oven that I can barely lift.
When he pulls back onto Masonic, he asks, “How about a slice of that head cheese?” I unwrap the thinnest of the pink paper packages and hand him a single, rubbery slice. He tilts his head back and drops the whole piece into his mouth, folding it up as it goes in. As he chews, he nods and smiles, remembering. “My mother would make head cheese for me. Brought home a pig’s head, took her cleaver and blewie! right between the eyes. I was thinking how much he looked like a guy I’d just been drinking with. I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t even kill a chicken. I had the hatchet raised, but when I saw its little eyes looking up at me, I couldn’t bring it down. My mother had to do it herself.”
He wheels our ‘52 Ford – so deep dusty purply blue my hands turn blue when I touch it – through the Panhandle, past the convent, turns left onto Geary at Bekins Van & Storage with the red neon truck drawn in perspective on the roof, rolls downhill past the little brick shop with golden fireplace screens and jade plants in brass pots and black leather bellows in the window, past the Bridge Theater with the posters of women in torn dresses, then Ish’s Grocery on the corner – where everything is dusty and there’s sawdust on the floor – and turns right onto Cook Street, our street, where he’ll pull into the driveway, pause to check if the lemons are getting ripe on his mother’s lemon tree – they never do – break the vein of a lemon leaf, sniff it with his eyes closed, then pass it to me with a smile, climb the stone stairs, push open the brass horse-head knockered door which has never been locked, walk down the hall to the kitchen at the back of the house and get the sausages going, a cigarette in one hand and his hat still on.
My Father’s Thumb (excerpt)
by Christie Svane
The nail on my father’s left thumb is a cloven hoof, like Pan’s. Holding the match he just lit for his cigarette, he gently prods the quick between the two halves, as if trying to wake up it up. “I think it’s starting to grow back,” he says. It’s been fifty years.
“I was splitting wood for my mother; she cooked on a wood stove. I must have been thinking about something else and… Blooie!–chopped off the top of my thumb. Put it in my pocket, stuck my thumb in my mouth, and walked to the hospital; it was just up the street, not there anymore. I said could you sew this back on for me and they laughed in my face. They didn’t know how to do that in ’27, but today, they could sew your whole arm back on.” He shudders and says, “You know, it’s quite a strange feeling, throwing part of yourself away in the garbage can.”
He studies his Pan hoof for so long I think he must be remembering what happened all the rest of that night, and the next day, and the next. Sometimes it seems like he’s more there than here.
“Then what happened?” I ask, wondering what you do after you throw part of yourself away. Isn’t there something that should happen? Some kind of funeral? Maybe people could sing you a sweet goodbye song to the part of you that you died? Flowers?
“Nothing. I walked home and had some whiskey for the pain. Went to work in the morning.”
My father’s stories were full of painful things that happened, followed by ‘nothing.’
It was the salty taste of the water he’d swum in all his life: no sympathy. The message, ‘Nobody cares how you feel,’ had soaked so deeply into his bones, he couldn’t see he was delivering it to us, as well. Like the tarry smell of cigarette smoke that was always on his breath, his skin, his clothes, this belief was the atmosphere around him, like the sun-obscuring fog of San Francisco. Even his years in the labor movement–when workers were demanding to have their feelings heard–did not ease the grip of this belief in him. I tried, I guess, all seventeen years I knew him, to change it, too, but I don’t believe I ever did.