Eavesdropping


(4/7/2004)

by Frances Edstrom

"Dad," she said, "look over here." She had a video camera to her eye, trained on the old man. He was one of those old guys, probably ninety or so, who had once been very large and still had a huge head, big nose, but whose hips had splayed and legs bandied, leaving him bent over, walking with a cane.

"What are you doing?" he growled at her in a voice full of gravel. "What you want with that thing?"

"Dad," she said, camera still to her eye, "tell me about your earliest memories, about your childhood."

"What do you mean?" he growled.

"You know," she said, "about growing up in the neighborhood."

"What, I grew up like any other kid in the neighborhood. Turn that thing off. What are you doing?"

"Dad, I want to get your stories on tape."

"What stories? I don't have any stories."

"What about the Valentine's Day Massacre?" she said.

"What you want to bring that up for? That was a long time ago, I was like what, 14 or something. I was a kid, what did I know? Turn that thing off."

"Dad, look at the camera."

"Turn it off," he said, looking deliberately down at the table.

"Tell me about the time your brother hit the nun."

"He didn't hit a nun."

"But what was it he did? Didn't he rip off her habit?"

"Her head gear. It was an accident. He was a good kid. Turn that thing off."

"Okay, Dad, I'll turn it off."

She put the camera down. "Dad, it's just that I'd like to do an oral history, you know, to remember you by."

"Unh."

Another man approached the table, maybe her husband, or boyfriend, or maybe second husband. A bland looking man, he addressed her.

"You get your father to tell his stories?"

"I don't have any stories."

"Dad, you have all sorts of great stories," she said, lifting up the camera. "How about the time the guy offered you the two extra dollars to do a job at work. That's a funny story."

He growled at her, "It woulda been funny if it hadn't happened!"

"Dad, tell about when you met Mother. Where did you meet her?"

"At work."

"At work, where was that? Dad, look at the camera."

"We worked the same place. She was in accounting. That's all there is to tell."

The woman, blond, middle-aged, still good-looking and slim, set the camera down. A waiter came and took their drink orders.

The old man pulled himself up, so you could see that at one time he was a large man, imposing. "You're doing it all wrong," he said. "These things, you got to have a script. You start at the beginning and then go in order. You were all over the map. Tell me about the neighborhood, tell me about your brother, tell me about the guy with the two dollars. You got to go in order."

"Okay," she said, "we'll try again tomorrow, and we'll go in order." She left with the video camera, which she had put back on its tripod. As she walked away, the old man called after her in his raspy voice, "Fold up the legs. Fold up the legs." She ignored him.

He turned to the other man, his son-in-law? "She was doing it all wrong," he told him.

The woman came back with a still camera. "Dad," she said, "look over here."

"Geez, Barbara, just what we need, one more picture of me. You're just like your aunt Ollie, never happy."

"What do you mean," she said, evenly, but with a hint of childhood grievance in her voice.

"Always finding fault, always complaining about people."

"Dad, I'm not like that. I don't complain about people. I don't find fault."

He told a story about aunt Ollie finding fault with a man who gave her a ride to work every day. "Finally, I said, Ollie, he gives you a ride in his car, with his gas, stop complaining."

"I don't find fault with people," said Barbara. "Dad, please, look here."

"See, always pushing, never happy."

She put the camera down on the table. "You're going to love the restaurant tonight. I read a review in the paper, and the guy raved about it. This will be the night to pig out."

"What?" he growled.

"Pig out. This place got great reviews."

"Sure, they give a guy a free meal, what's he going to say?"

After a short lull in the conversation, the old man chuckled to himself.

"What's funny?" asked Barbara.

"The guy that offered me the two extra bucks. That's a funny story." And he launched into it, like a Shakespearian actor warming to his best performance yet.

And Barbara's video camera was asleep in its case.

 

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