Praying Before Idols by Wendy Swift

On our first night living on Tuller Circle, my sixteen-year-old daughter and I assemble what will become our kitchen table for the next fourteen years. The surface is constructed of pine-green tiles set in oak, and—because it is higher than average table height—I buy four stools upon which my three daughters and I will crowd together each night while we eat cheap food. I am like the single mom Cher plays in the movie Mermaids—with dinners that more closely resemble hors d’oeuvres, made festive with party toothpicks, rather than nutritious food generally recommended for teen growth spurts. I follow the table’s assembly instructions, using a special screwdriver included in the kit to fit the bolts in place. I align the legs with the supporting beam, creating a structure that can stand upright without toppling under the weight of dinner dishes. We laugh over the incoherent directions and the bizarre illustrations while I am reminded of the absurdity of attempting to fit together a new life for which we have no blueprint. The two oldest girls get the master bedroom to help ease their transition. I want them to feel positive about this new arrangement and somehow believe a room with a bathroom and a TV will ameliorate the loss of their father, their home, their honor. When one family member goes to jail, the entire family joins him.

Earlier in the day, friends and my brother loaded vans and cars to make multiple trips across town from our old home to our new apartment. I was grateful for the help, but at the same time embarrassed by the obvious mess in which we had been living, now laid bare to witnesses. There were stacks of Penthouses(another of Danny’s addictions) and dense dust that has accumulated behind our bed because it never occurred to me that I might vacuum that wayward space. Random objects are hastily thrown into garbage bags, including wedding gifts from a marriage that had taken place twenty years earlier. Most of our belongings were sold in the weeks leading up to this day, and what remained I was giving to friends or leaving on the street. These were needless objects that represented years of pointless material accumulation with no place in my new life. I was happy to purge.

The next morning, I leave for my first day of work at the Traveler’s Insurance Company. My education prepared me to be a teacher, not an insurance executive, or even someone with a smattering of knowledge or interest in death benefits or annuities. A friend has helped me get this job―it’s temporary without benefits but I needed something quick since I had been home for many years raising my daughters. My job is in the Communications Department responding to emails. The Internet is a new technology in 1996 and very few customers know how to use it. I will end up spending a good deal of my days emailing friends with subject lines like: “Lost in Space” or “A Long, Strange Trip.” When I arrive at the office on that first day, I call a friend and ask him to drive across town to check on my kids. We don’t have a phone line installed and I’m pretty sure there is nothing in the apartment for my kids to eat because I didn’t  have time to grocery shop after moving, unpacking and assembling the table the night before. Can he see what they need? Maybe bring them some food? And please tell them when a man arrives and says he’s from the phone company, they can let him in. My friend acts like a courier, brings food and gives the kids a few bucks in case there’s an emergency. I’m not sure what emergency he imagines. The only emergency I know of is the loneliness and despair that is setting in as the reality that our family will never be the same begins to take form. I don’t think a few extra bucks will help since money was what brought us to this place to begin with.

Our new routine includes expensive collect calls from prison. I tell my husband to call less. We can’t afford it.  He says he’ll get his sister to give me money for the calls because the calls are his lifeline and I cannot take that from him. He says I’m cold and insensitive because I don’t seem to care about my husband in prison. I want to say that’s what happens when you embezzle over a million dollars. We were married for twenty years and I am just now beginning to listen to myself. 

I was a “good” girl once―raised in a family that valued integrity and moral conduct.  I was pious. I went to Catholic church with my father and brothers. I kneeled and prayed. I sat demurely with legs politely crossed at the ankles. I went to confession to admit childish sins. I was good at being a Catholic, so good that I won a Catechism contest and was awarded a plastic replica of La Pieta.I took it to my bedroom and plugged it in and sat on the edge of my bed, staring at the glowing image of Jesus held in his mother’s arms after dying on the cross. I stayed that way most of the afternoon until my mother came home from work.  She told me I had to bring it back. I didn’t understand it at the time, but my mother was Jewish and praying before idols was not permitted in our home. I felt Mary’s grief as I trudged back to Catechism class to return my prize.

Our yellow Lab, Jake, struggles to adjust to his new surroundings. He is accustomed to hanging out in the yard, untethered by any leash. That is strictly forbidden in our new neighborhood of affordable units. To help ease Jake’s anxiety, I take him home to our old house on Hoplea Road. Alone, he languishes in the yard. For the time being, the house is vacant and Jake doesn’t realize we no longer live there. While I am at work and the kids are at school, he spends those first few weeks pretending nothing has changed. I envy his wanton disregard for our circumstances. It won’t be long before Jake will need to confront the limitations of living in a multiple housing unit where his comings and goings are carefully monitored by neighbors who hate dogs. 

On Saturdays, we drive to Enfield. This is a medium security prison, not like the maximum detention center where Danny first began his internment three months earlier. Here, we can sit around a table rather than speaking to him through glass with the aid of a phone. In this prison, the walls are weirdly decorated with life-size images of Road Runner, Sylvester Cat and Tweety Bird, painted by the prisoners themselves. I like to imagine the conversations they might have had while painting Looney Tunescharacters, wondering how long they will stay in hell. We wait in a room with the other families while the prisoners are paraded out of a door, one at a time, each wearing an orange jumpsuit. Danny swoops the girls into his arms and lightly kisses me. He looks unfettered, if not a bit thinner, but that’s to be expected. After about an hour, the kids are restless. I have been crying. It is time to leave. Later, Dan tells me that if I can’t stop crying, I should have someone else bring the kids to visit. The next time we visit I sit silently while he chats about the classes he is taking and the basketball games he plays during rec time.  

I think about trading places with him and wonder who got the better end of the deal. 

Wendy Swift is a graduate of Syracuse University. She teaches creative writing and is the Director of theCenter for Writing at Cheshire Academy, an international day and boarding school located in Connecticut. In addition, she is the In-Briefs editor for the Bulletin, a publication of the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering. Her work has been published in the Bethlehem Writers Roundtable, Adirondack Explorer, Litchfield County Times and Long Island Woman.