On February 2, 2009, the sentencing of reputed Mob boss Joey “the Clown” Lombardo was all over the Internet. I read about it while in the final stages of finishing a draft of a new novel, and the sensationalism of the trial felt far away and fake . . . which may be less a reflection on the nature of Mob trials and more on the nature of what seems real vs. surreal to writers finishing projects. I was, it is clear in retrospect, in a full-blown state of mania last February: the third or fourth in my lifetime, but probably the worst, the most disruptive and acute. Which is to say, the best, the most intoxicating. But the mania was just beginning at this point; it had not yet hit its peak, though already I had not slept in days or maybe weeks, not more than a couple of hours in the deep middle of the night, and already I was starting to drop weight (one of the more pleasant side-effects of mania.) Joe Lombardo was sentenced to life in prison, but it would be fair to say I didn’t give a shit about this; it was not on my radar. The legendary Mafioso, even now reputed to still be either Consigliore or Boss of the Outfit from behind bars, was reported as 80 years old at the time of the sentencing, and I remember, as I read the news off a computer screen in my home office, that being the only part of the story that really made an impression on me: his age.

It seemed crazy, because my father has always referred to Joe Lombardo as a “good kid.”

For the first time in my life, I googled Joe Lombardo. I was sure they’d gotten his age wrong in the news, but no, he was born in 1929. My father was born in the final weeks of 1921. When you grow up around somebody, I guess that window of time makes a great deal of difference.

Prior to the “Family Secrets” trial, Joe Lombardo was supposedly on the lam. He eluded the police for quite a long period, which would be curious enough considering he was already an elderly man and in no condition for life on the run, but was all the stranger considering that—during the time he was supposedly “in hiding”—people I knew from my old neighborhood, including my father, saw him frequently cavorting in plain sight. He continued to dine at my father’s favorite Italian restaurant, for example, where he was widely known and where he commonly bought drinks for other customers, including my parents. He did not, it would be fair to say, seem like a man trying to exist under the radar or full of anxiety about being apprehended. My parents never seemed to think it was particularly strange when they ran into him.

This makes sense when viewed from a certain angle. Once, many years ago when I was still a girl living on Race Street, across the street from Joe Lombardo, my father told me a story about him. In the story, my father asks Joe why he doesn’t move out of the old neighborhood. “You’ve got more money than god,” my father says. “What are you sticking around here for?” And Joe says simply, “This is the only place on earth where I never have to look over my shoulder.”

It was true. In our neighborhood, Joe Lombardo had the status of a President or a King. Though any powerful man has powerful rivals, such rivals did not dwell in our one step-above-a-ghetto near the intersection of Grand and Western. The men in our neighborhood were either average blue collar guys like my father—bartenders, truck-drivers, cops—or they were such small-timers in the Outfit that Joe was like a father to them, not a competitor. It would probably be fair to say that most men in the hood would have been thrilled to take a bullet for him. It would have been like the equivalent of becoming a war hero.

For a week now, I have been thinking and writing about my father, who turned 88 on December 14. Though one of my dad’s brothers was a Mob bookie, for the most part ours was a “civilian” family. Well, perhaps that would be an overstatement. My family, over the years, has included street-gang-founders, drug dealers, murdered gangbangers, and several criminals of the more “private” variety, whose crimes may in fact have been more devastating—or were to me. But ours was not a family that attracted media attention for lawbreaking, and in the neighborhood where I was raised, some amount of lawbreaking was par for the course, so what I mean is that we were “typical” for the milieu in which we lived. My father had worked in a factory, and later he owned a bar, and later still—after his back and leg and ulcer all deteriorated; after the death of his elder brother propelled him into a nervous breakdown that ended in his institutionalization—he sold his bar and worked at a friend’s until retiring early, in poor health, in his mid-50s, when I was only ten years old. He was a man who had claimed for years that he would never live to see 40, and with sound reason: he had had two-thirds of his stomach removed from his bleeding ulcer before I was even born, and throughout my youth he tended to be hospitalized and to hover at near-death almost yearly. Yet now he is an old man living on the first floor of my home, and in most ways his life has been an unremarkable one.

He was devoted to jazz, but he was never a musician. He was an Anglophile, but rarely traveled due to a lack of money and rabid fear of planes—the last time my father was airborne was 1961. Once or twice, our phone was rumored to be tapped due to my father’s relationship with people who might have relationships with organized crime; once he and his nephew believed they had been tailed by an unmarked car while they were driving to buy some doughnuts . . . but my father was, at the end of the day, an average guy whose relationships with the Infamous and Glamorous were casual and loose, and whose own life was certainly of no interest to the media. He was the sort of Italian man who lives below the popular radar, while Don Corleone, Tony Soprano and Joe Lombardo become American Icons. He was invisible, as most people are, and that has always been absolutely fine with him.

I have been struggling now for a week to find a way to define my father on paper, but of course anyone could have told me from the get-go that such a task was impossible. Like everyone, my father is defined by a complicated and paradoxical web of what he is and is not—by where he fits and has always failed to fit. The great paradox of Giovanni (“John”) Mario Frangello’s life may be the sentimental attachment he held until he was nearly 80 for his old neighborhood, where he had been born with a midwife in the apartment where I was raised. He refused to leave the neighborhood even after marrying a non-Italian girl who didn’t fit in there; he refused to leave even when, in the late 1980s, a rash of murders killed several people in one summer, including a teenage boy with no gang ties and was shot in a case of mistaken identity right across the street from our house, and well as an actual gang leader along with his pregnant girlfriend, an old friend of mine from elementary school. He not only refused to leave, but on the night I went away to college he wept to my mother, not so much because he was going to miss me (though I hope that was part of it) but because he felt betrayed. The way I was raised, family didn’t leave. Blood was thicker than water. Higher education was synonymous with putting on airs. My departure symbolized that I thought I was “too good.” When he told my mother that he predicted I would fail or drop out of school within the year, oddly this was probably wishful thinking on his part.

Though he adores me in the way the parents of only-children often do, I suspect I am still a bit of a disappointment to him in small but myriad ways. He does not like how much I work. He does not like my son, age 3, being in full-day preschool. He thinks I get angry too easily, though he is the only person in my entire life who has ever accused me of this. He doesn’t like that I straighten my curly hair. For most of my life he has chided me for my eating habits, mocking me for not eating more meat and—whenever I’ve been ill, which is admittedly often—saying there’s nothing wrong with me that a good cheeseburger wouldn’t cure. He doesn’t like that I don’t wear tweed, even though I am confident he has never met a woman in his entire life who did wear tweed. Still, it is something he aspired to in his daughter, and I failed to live up to it. The day I left to study abroad in England, which might have sounded like his lifelong fantasy given his Anglophile nature, he was hospitalized with a severe ulcer attack. He did not like me getting on airplanes, but probably he also considered my living outside the country as a form of high treason.

If it ended there, of course, it would be simple. How many stories seem to end there—with the ways fathers are never “satisfied;” with the ways they find fault.  Those stories hurt, but they are easy.

But the truth is, my father was also a role model in ways he never anticipated, simply by being himself. In a neighborhood where the heroes were Mobsters—reputed killers—as well as gang leaders and thieves who evaded capture and the occasional crooked politician who rose from our ranks, my father was a gentle man. Not a gentleman, perhaps, of the Cary Grant variety he aspired to just as he aspired to tweed for me, but a gentle man who rarely rose his voice. When I routinely watched the other kids around me get smacked around by their fathers—watched them come to school with bruises and heard their stories about “getting the belt,” my father never raised a hand to me, much less my mother. When I was in seventh and eighth grade and my friends were becoming prey to predatory older men—their divorced mothers’ pervy boyfriends or twenty year old guys who would give them coke in exchange for a blowjob—my father offered a silent protection by virtue of his status as a neighborhood patriarch: nobody fucked with me. When a former classmate of mine was gang-raped at fifteen by a group of neighborhood men who beat her with a coat hanger and threw her down a flight of stairs, and the men were never brought to trial because everyone—male, female, young and old—seemed to concur that the girl “deserved it” for being “a slut,” and many rushed to offer faux alibis for the rapists, I was forced to digest both the knowledge that this place, this neighborhood where such things happened under the radar everyday, was where my father had insisted on raising me, and yet also to digest in turn that my father was eons from those animals and would never hurt a woman. For that story—and for others much closer to home—I have often struggled with a kind of “survivor guilt” because I got out, relatively unscathed, of a place that, for young girls, could be a war zone, due in no small part to my father’s constant gentle protection. I had a safe haven, whereas most of my girlfriends did not.

And yet, when my best friend was raped by a man we’d gone to school with while she was asleep at his mother’s house, my father argued that it wasn’t “really rape” because she had gone there to sleep, and what did she expect?

This, the same friend of mine whom my father paid to bring on family vacations with us, whom he bought countless lunches and dinners and who practically lived at our apartment on the weekends when her mother, who was young and divorced, was out drinking and meeting men at bars. This girl he called his “second daughter.”

Can this be what he means when he says that I get angry so easily?

The truth is: the paradoxes of my father cannot be fit onto any page. They cannot be curtailed into one week of my mind. I will digest them, fight them, mull them over, contradict them, yearn for them, for the rest of my own life, in story and quietly, alone.

From my father, I learned or inherited a fear of planes. A propensity towards mental instability that, like him, I manage most of the time to keep at bay, occasionally succumbing to an undertow beyond my control. A cynical humor, a religious skepticism, a strange obsession with all things English even though as a kid I often said “I hate England!” just to spite him. A penchant for Valium and narcotic painkillers and old Woody Allen films and dark wood beams on ceilings and old dilapidated barns. A loyalty to family that borders—in the WASPy, middle-class America in which I now dwell—on the unseemly. And an abiding belief that “blood is thicker than water,” but—unlike the Italian blood lineage of which my father’s family spoke—a belief that I, with my Chinese daughters and surrogate gay, Latino “brother,” am the one who chooses what falls within the definition of “blood.”

This is longer than I planned.

I could go on.

Instead, one final story. Once upon a time, when I was maybe ten years old, I was given a bunch of M&Ms to sell for school. Whoever sold the most got some crummy satin jacket that nobody wanted anyway, even though we all wanted to win. I brought home my sales sheet from school, prepared to start humping it door to door like every kid who has ever had to sell some meaningless shit for some cause we can’t even remember anymore. My dad, however, said to me, “You know what, Flower, I was just at the club earlier today, and Joe Lombardo was saying he had a taste for chocolate. You should go over to his house first.”

“The club.” Yeah, that’s one for another post someday, not now.

Joe lived across the playground. Back then, the world in which I lived was so small that I remember being put out by the fact that my father wanted me to walk all the way across the playground instead of just going next door to troll my candy. But I did it. I was aware that Joey the Clown was “famous” and although his daughter babysat me sometimes, I don’t think I had ever been to his house before.

His wife came to the door. But when she saw it was John Frangello’s daughter, she fetched Joe.

I showed him my forms and told him about the M&Ms.

And he said, “I was just telling your dad I had a taste for chocolate.”

He bought every M&M I had. Though I may be embellishing this in my memory, I think he actually insisted on signing his name to every line, even though I explained it was unnecessary, and that under “quantity” I could just write “all.” Maybe things like this are what earned him his nickname.

I got the satin jacket. I never wore it, but for years this was a story I traded on in school, and the other kids liked the story, just as they enjoyed hearing about my mother’s grandfather who died by falling into a volcano while on vacation in Hawaii.

I realize now that Joe probably never told my father he had a “taste for chocolate.” I realize now that there was simply a kind of “Adult Group Think” going on that had to do with coming from the same place and having a similar sense of humor and code, and that it was somehow imperative to both men that I believe I was doing Joe a favor, instead of realizing that Joe was doing my dad one.

In defining my father, then, one small point on the scale–along with him not being a gang-rapist or abuser; along with him not being the kind of father who could help me with my homework or who was proud of me when I was accepted to college but who has come, over the years, to be proud of me for not dropping out after all, and for growing into the kind of mother who will be able to help my kids with the kinds of papers he didn’t understand–along with all of these things is this: my father is neither a criminal nor a glamorous public figure like Joe Lombardo.

He is an old man who refers to Joe Lombardo as “a good kid.”

One day over the summer, as my daughters and I were passing through my parents’ apartment on our way to the back yard, we noticed, through the windows, that the next-door neighbors were pulling up all the grass from their yard and putting in Astroturf. My father, who lives downstairs from us and whose kitchen we always have to walk through if we want to enter or exit by our back door, was sitting in his usual chair in a V-necked T-shirt stained with spaghetti sauce and a pair of boxer shorts, reading Star magazine. He was, at that time, eighty-seven years old. He ignored us as we passed behind him on the stairs. He was reading aloud to himself about Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

Though I should have known better, for some strange reason I said, “Look, Dad. The Victorines are putting fake grass in their yard.”

My father looked up abruptly. He had not realized we were there, and seemed surprised to see us. His eyes followed my pointing finger and he saw the neighbors laying their Astroturf. “What the hell are they doing out there?” he asked.

“Putting in fake grass,” I repeated. I had already been speaking loudly, but now I raised my voice loud enough that the neighbors themselves probably could hear the conversation. Bartender ear, my mother called this back in the days when my father’s not seeming to hear anything we said was elective on his part. He had listened to drunks repetitive ramblings for so many years that he learned simply to tune voices out. He lived to a private Stan Getz riff in his head.

Now he looked at me accusingly. “Fake rats?” he shouted. “What do you mean, fake rats?”

My daughters started laughing. “Fake grass!” they shouted in unison. “Fake grass, Papa! Grass.”

“Grass,” I explained, over them. “You know, green stuff that grows on the ground.”

But my father wasn’t looking at us, which may have meant that, since he couldn’t see our lips moving, he didn’t even know we were speaking to him. Some days, his ears work better than others, but those days are fewer and farther between.

“Fake rats!” he cried indignantly. “What do they want to do something like that for?”

“Dad,” I began. My daughters and I were all, I confess, basically guffawing into our hands by then. “Dad, not rats! Nobody wants fake rats on their lawn. We’re talking about grass. G-R-A-S-S!”

“Jesus Christ,” my father said, turning back to Lohan and Hilton in Star. He was finished with us and was muttering to himself under his breath. “Fake rats,” he hissed, shaking his head while his eyes perused the pictures of twentysomething celebrities. “I never heard of such a thing.”

***

My father was not always like this. He used to wear a Brooks Brothers raincoat. He used to have a penchant for tea and marmalade—while other Italian men in our blue collar neighborhood wanted to be Brando, or just Joey Iupa, my father the Anglophile aspired to Cary Grant. Though he went bald in his early twenties, he never had that greasy look some men get. He always smelled good, of Polo cologne. I suspect that, to ward off any appearance of shine, he used to use Old Spice powder on his head.

***

About ten years ago, my mother began speaking to me in a conspiratorial tone. She began opening conversations with lines like, “Your father has bought this cookie jar in the shape of a suckling pig and is keeping it on his dresser. It has no cookies in it—he just thinks it’s a nice decoration.”

A product of the Great Depression, my father began to hoard cans of ravioli under his bed.

His hearing failed, but he insisted my mother and I merely mumbled. When we insisted this was not the case he said, “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.”

Apropos of nothing, he would sometimes rail about things like why pregnant women wear skimpy tops.  “See, here’s Gwenyth Paltrow from a magazine and even she looks like shit, women shouldn’t do that!–don’t they know how bad it looks?”  His face would grow red with frustration when in thirty-five years of knowing him I had never before heard him voice an opinion on maternity fashion, or anything to do with pregnancy, or really even raise his voice except when driving.

One day five years ago, he couldn’t move his foot–which was already riddled by peripheral neuropathy so that he experiences his feet as “round,” without the feeling of his toes or heels—off the gas pedal and had to drive his car into a sign post to avoid harming anyone on the road. After that he didn’t drive anymore, and my mother, in her seventies, got her driver’s license for the first time, and something irrevocable shifted between them.

He needed a cane to walk, but was too proud to use one, so instead he began to fall down a lot. Then he used the cane, but soon needed a walker. The week of his 85th birthday he fell on the way to the toilet and fractured his pelvis. He contracted pneumonia in the hospital and hallucinated being in the apartment of one of his many long-dead friends, Tommy Catalano, and kept saying, “What the hell did Tommy do to these walls?” He didn’t recognize my infant son and called him a “big headed little German who’d turn you in on a dime.” The doctors essentially wrote him off for dead—an eighty-five-year-old man with a broken hip and pneumonia is practically a cliché for which they offer you a special funeral rate—but against all odds he was home within the week, albeit unable to move and wearing a diaper. Then he was stricken with some of the nastier side effects of massive doses of antibiotics; we spent Christmas 2006 changing his diaper almost on the hour while he screamed at the ceiling, begging for the Death he had cheated once again.

He never walked again without a walker. Sometimes, even with the walker, he still falls. As winter snow and ice hit Chicago early this year, he announced he would just not be “going out” anymore.

When my parents were first dating, my father would do things like drive my mother to New York so she could taste the cheesecake. They would drive all night, and once they got there and downed a slice, my father would want to go out to the jazz clubs, and then he would drive home all night into the next day to make it home to work at his bar by evening.

Now, my husband, kids and I spend a great deal of time on a 160 acre farm only a few hours away in Wisconsin. It has a dilapidated old red barn my father would love—he used to stop at roadsides and take photos of barns just like that when I was a kid. But he has never been to the farm—he has never seen “our” red barn. Long car rides hurt his back too much now, and he has difficulty controlling his bladder and can have accidents if cooped up too long. We try to convince him that we’ll pull into every rest stop we see—every twenty minutes if he likes—but he is unconvinced. “Oh honey,” he says. “What am I going to do when I get there anyway? I don’t want to go anywhere anymore. I can’t even walk.”

When someone says something like this to you, you want to turn into a cheerleader. You want to protest that just sitting on the wide front porch and watching the children play in the overgrown grass, that surveying the poetic barn, would somehow be enough. But who are you to say what is enough? My father has already hit the point of “enough,” but then it left without him, and he is still here.

When I was young, my father loved to make fun of old people, to my mother’s horror and my amusement. He would shuffle around like Tim Conway and make puttering noises and twitch his hands theatrically when drinking his tea if there were gray-hairs nearby. The ironic truth is, even his most dire imitations of the elderly did not do justice to what it is like right now just trying to watch my father make it from his bedroom to the kitchen table in the morning: a ritual involving a walker, an entire pill case of tablets to lessen the pain from his osteoarthritis, his spinal stenosis, his temporal arteritis, and his peripheral neuropathy. His journey some twenty feet involves a string of repeated expletives (Oh boy oh boy oh Jesus Christ this fucking body boy oh boy oh boy), and an obsessive compulsive need for a milkshake involving ice cream, milk and bananas.  To be clear: the shake has absolutely no relationship to his medical requirements, yet he will not take his pills without this shake, so that if it is midnight and there are no bananas in the house, my husband and I will get a call to go and fetch some or otherwise the routine cannot be followed come morning. If there are no bananas; if my parents are out of milk, hysteria ensues.

***

The first half an hour of my father’s day goes something like this: He sits in his kitchen chair reading a gossip magazine, maybe Star or People or something of that ilk—something he never would have bought or even perused as a younger man, when he read Royko religiously but otherwise was not much of a reader; when he was into Lenny Bruce and foreign films and smoky jazz and All in the Family and Carson. Now, my father could tell you the latest weight gain of some obscure starlet I wouldn’t even recognize if she fell on me in the street. He reads these magazines because they are “easy,” and nothing else in his life is easy anymore. Early mornings, when he first begins to read, he does so silently like a normal person. If he can read “in his head” and actually comprehend what he is reading, then he knows better than to stand up and try to walk yet, because the pain in his body will still be too intense. But as half an hour goes by and my father’s regimen of pain pills begin to kick in, the words he reads become blurry to his eyes and his mind, and he begins to speak them aloud to keep track. “Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting again,” he might read. (They know each other, right? Or is that Nicole Ritchie? My father would know the answer to this.) Still, he dares not get out of the chair. Finally, reading aloud doesn’t really work either. His brain has become so fuzzy that the sentence sounds more like this: “Lindsay Lindsay Lindsay Lohan and Paris Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and Paris Hilton Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting are fighting are fighting again.”

The pills have done their job. Now he can stand up and make it to the shower. Now, his daughter–can you believe she’s forty!–and his almost-teenage granddaughters can traipse downstairs on their good legs and talk to him about fake rats in the neighbor’s yard, and who knows why people do the things they do, and who cares anymore anyway? But where is the baby—why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her; the little boy they named after him, with his ringlets and his big eyes, who looks so much like his daughter at that age, back when he called her Little Flower—where is the baby, when the only reason he can bear to sit here at this table and get through another day is for a glimpse of him. Why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her—she leaves the baby too much, she works too much, runs around too much, the baby will grow up so fast, she’ll see, then it’s over, then the kids are all gone, even if they live right above you, still, they are gone.

Another day begins.

When my father and mother met in 1957, he gave her a fake name. John LaSalle, he called himself, claiming he was visiting from New York to help out a friend who had just opened a bar and needed an experienced hand. He was only in Chicago for a few weeks, he claimed, so obviously he wasn’t looking for anything “serious.” This was, apparently, good enough for her.

My mother was twenty-five, which seems preposterously young in 2009, but in 1957 most of her girlhood friends were already married with children in elementary school, whereas my mother lived alone in a studio on Rush Street, occasionally singing and playing piano in jazz clubs (though she could not read music), working as a secretary by day, and sometimes falling into pits of depression she describes as “black periods,” in which she wrote morose poetry full of lines like “the faltering foot of man who wades/into the guideless brew” and “go my chain.” She had, though you were not supposed to admit it in those days, been through her share of men, including a broken engagement in her late teens. She had traveled the country with two traveling salesmen who dined on steak and made her eat burgers, selling No-Doze machines to truck stops. In California, she had briefly worked as a ballroom dance instructor and been so poor she lived on Hershey bars, but now she was back in Chicago, where she had been raised, with a stable job. Though not thin by today’s standards, my mother was a beautiful woman, with a striking resemblance to a young Isabella Rossellini. Her boobs were something to behold. A semi-famous actor once tried to acquire her as a mistress, but she was not cut out for that life. She had too rigid a moral center, or too much fear, or both, to her betterment or her detriment.

Though this is not ostensibly “about” my mother, I guess what I’m trying to say is that she, while not perfect, was in my father’s estimations “above his station.” Even now that she is seventy-seven, he seems unclear what exactly she is doing with the likes of him . . . though as with most men, this does not mean he has always treated her well. Besides his lacking hair and being older, my father had never lived outside Chicago or even graduated from the eighth grade. More importantly, he was shy to a fault whereas my mother was—and still is—the type of person almost everyone immediately likes. She is outgoing and palpably kind, and she asks a lot of questions (which seem polite and interested if you don’t know her well, albeit bordering on Inquisitional if you know her very, very well.) She’s easy-going and accommodating, avoiding confrontation as though it were a venomous snake coiled at her heel, but that her eternal optimism makes her believe she can easily sidestep and outrun. In public in their early days, she was taken perpetually for his daughter: a mistake they milked with rare and comic perversity.

Yet for all her smiles and pleasantries, my mother is a deeply secretive, easily wounded person who prefers getting to know others to being known herself. She had always been popular as a teen, and into her early twenties—a party girl who won a contest for the prettiest legs; who danced on car roofs in the rain with other bawdy young girls and lived in apartments with a string of roommates . . . but by her mid-twenties, many of those friendships had faded away. Her relationships (platonic and romantic) seemed based more on surface fun than true intimacy, so by the time she met my father in 1957, she was acutely lonely, though she may not have put it that way, or even realized it. She was, as they say, “ripe.”

They met on a blind date. A friend of my dad’s (who was, incidentally, an ex boyfriend of my mom’s) gave him her number after my father chauvinistically proclaimed that women knew nothing about jazz—the fellow said my mother could give him a run for his money. So they met at a coffee shop at two in the morning, because that was when my father got off work. Their conversation lasted into morning, when they moved to the restaurant across the street for breakfast. Afterwards, I am fairly sure they adjourned to my mother’s apartment for sex, though I was (thank god) never told this explicitly. Certainly, they could not have gone to my father’s place, as he lived with his parents in the same small two-bedroom in which he’d been born, in a rundown Italian neighborhood far from glamorous Rush Street. My mother, of course, did not know this. She did not even know he was Italian—which, if you have ever seen my father’s nose, does not speak highly of her powers of observation. When a couple of weeks later, my mother once called him at his “friend’s” bar to tell him she’d be late for their date, she was told there was “no John LaSalle” there, but that the owner, John Frangello, might know who he was and where to find him.

Hence, my father’s ass was busted—my mother recognized his voice and slammed down the phone in fury. Later that night, my father showed up at her door with champagne and cheeseburgers, and for reasons lost to history yet eternal among lonely women in any time, my mother forgave him.

Four years later, they married. If they are both still living in August 2011, it will be their fiftieth wedding anniversary. My father would be eighty-nine.

Two quick details about their courtship, just because:

1) They not only met based on a lie of identity, but married based on one. In order to snag my mother a vacation from work—her boss was rather smitten with her and never gave her any time off—my parents told the man that they were going on a honeymoon to Europe. Only once the other secretaries at her office threw her a shower and gave her presents did my mother realize that everyone would expect her to come back from vacation with a new surname. She had two options: quit her job, or get married. As an Executive Secretary, her position was a coveted one for a girl with no college degree, so it seemed a shame to lose it. “Well then,” my father said, “we’d better get married,” and off to City Hall they went.

2) My father had a predilection for oral sex and was obsessed with giving it to my mother. (Why my mother told me this would obviously be fodder for another post, entitled “Too Much Information: Shit My Mother Told Me That I Never Needed to Know,” but there it is.)

But again, as this is not the story of my mother, neither is it the story of their dating years, their sex life or—later—the lack thereof. Those are stories that are fun, or at least funny, to tell, and that I have explored somewhat in my fiction. Today, however, is my father’s 88th birthday. And so, perhaps, this is a harder story to tell: one that eludes me even as I am beginning it. The story of how you get from point A to point Y. This is a story of knowing point Z—end point—is hovering nearby, forever around the corner, yet not precisely when it will hit. The story of the wild ride, and when, sometimes, that ride goes on without you, long after you are nauseated from the curves and would simply rather get off.

How do you tell a story like that? Apparently, here, you start with the easy stuff. You start off slow, and hope that somehow you can circle things around just enough to create a pastiche, a collage, a portrait that resembles a whole, even if it can never be exactly complete.

“Getting old is a kick in the ass, honey,” my father told me when he was maybe seventy. By then, he had already outlived all his brothers spare one (long dead now), as well as his parents and most of his male friends—old customers from his bar or other bar owners, musicians, or occasional Mobsters whom alcoholism, drug use, high blood pressure or violent lifestyles got killed early. His fifties and sixties were full of wakes, and by the time he entered his seventies, he was already a Last Man Standing of sorts. When our longtime neighbor, reputed Mob boss Joe Lombardo, was let out of prison in the late 1980s, he drove by my father’s house honking his horn and waving, making a loud show of his “respect” for my father, one of the neighborhood patriarchs.

Every night my father dreams of his dead brothers. His dreams are full of barren, frozen grounds and solitary old men, dragged off by hostile crowds in the back of carts. His dreams are full of death imagery and ghosts. He never dreams of me or my mother. In his dream life, he has been standing alone for nearly two decades now.

“The show’s over,” he’s been telling us for years. And then, in the next breath, looking at my daughters, age 9, “I wish I could be around to see them get married.”

Where am I going with this? Where am I going?

I have given myself the week to figure it out. This is the thing about “youth,” even middle-aged-youth: I can still believe in the luxury of time. And so I’ll try again tomorrow.

A big hello from the Fiction Editorial Team–Stacy Bierlein, Alex Chee, Shya Scanlon and yours truly.  We’re all so excited to unveil this section of the new-and-improved TNB that if we told you how thrilled we really are, you might be a little alarmed.  You might even suspect that we have too much time on our hands . . . which is so far from the truth it would be comical.  So suffice it to say that we’re really, really glad you’re here, and both proud and humbled to be on this journey through the terrain of contemporary fiction with you.

First, a little story:

This September my son Giovanni, who is three-and-a-half, started preschool.  The plan was that once he was in school, I would finally have enough hours “to myself” to get all my work done.  On that list: running Other Voices Books‘ flagship Chicago office (well, flagship may be a rather grand term for a desk in my basement), teaching at two universities, raising three small children–and then, in my nonexistent spare time blogging for both TNB and HuffPo, in addition, of course, to writing my own fiction and prepping to market my second book coming out in 2010.  Oh, I think I recall that I was also going to kick up my yoga practice this year in all my “free time,” and start reading some books that weren’t: a) fiction, b) submissions to OV Books or c) by writers I know.

Um, yeah.  Sometimes the best laid plans go awry.  Or maybe it’s just that sometimes the best laid plans are not really all they’re cracked up to be.

Giovanni had been at his first day of preschool for exactly four hours when my phone rang.  It was Brad Listi, who at that time (this now seems like a distant memory) didn’t frequently call me.  He proceeded to explain his idea for a TNB Fiction Section.  Then, to my surprise, he asked if I would consider editing it.

Absolutely anyone who knows anything about what my life looks like would tell you that I should have run for the hills.

Instead I was ecstatic.  I think within a minute and a half, I had basically signed away not only my own name in blood, but that of my longtime business partner Stacy Bierlein, Exec. Ed. of OV’s Los Angeles office, who is now my co-Editor in this venture too.  I recall buzzing around my house for the rest of the workday making lists of all the writers I couldn’t wait to let know about TNB.  When Shya and Alex joined the fray soon after, the conference calls and barrage of emails that commenced were dizzying.

If you care anything about contemporary fiction (and you wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t), you know that review venues are shrinking by the day.  Books sections in papers and magazines are closing or radically reducing space; longtime literary magazines are losing funding and folding.  Corporate publishers are spending less on book tours and indie presses often can’t afford to spring for them to begin with.  It is harder and harder for writers to market their work in traditional ways.

This is where TNB’s Fiction Section comes in.  Our aim here is not only akin to that of all good literary magazines–to showcase some of the most vibrant writers working today–but also to help provide these writers with a vehicle to market their books.  This is why we provide links to authors’ websites and sales pages: to help directly connect the writers we love with their audience–TNB’s large, loyal and growing readership.  We also aim to provide you insights into these authors and their work that you can’t get just anywhere, which is what’s behind the “self-interview” concept.  Here, authors answer all the questions they were always afraid to answer in other interviews, or that they wished all those other guys would’ve asked instead of asking what time of the day they write and whether their desk faces west or east.  TNB’s Fiction Section is a tantalizing triple-threat on that week’s Featured Author, so that by the time you’re done, you should be as smitten as we are.

Some writers we’ll be showcasing this year include Stuart Dybek, Steve Almond, Stephen Elliott, Antonya Nelson, Jonathan Evison, Joshua Mohr, Aimee Liu and Terese Svoboda . . . among many, many more!  Please stay tuned.  New work goes up every Sunday night.

Finally, on behalf of Stacy and myself, I’d also like to say how truly fun it’s been to work with such a wide variety of writers again.  When we closed Other Voices magazine in 2007 to focus on book publishing, we gained many exciting opportunities to champion indie books out in the world, but we considerably narrowed the pool of writers we were able to champion, since Other Voices Books publishes only two titles annually.  So it has truly been a joy to be able to reach out to more writers again, to consider so much new work, and to merge our passion for book and magazine publishing here at TNB.

We hope to hear from you soon and often.  Onward, and go TNB!


When you enter the country of Pain, they confiscate your passport. You leave behind the things and people that used to feel important and familiar, in which you used to believe. Everyone in the new country is a stranger, though it scarcely matters because pain is really a nation of islands, and everyone who lives there lives alone.

In 1995, while my husband and I were visiting my best friend Tom in Barcelona, I became an unintentional and surprise immigrant in the country of pain. It happened overnight, and at first I did not realize I had “moved.” I believed I had a bladder infection. I’d had them before—many, in fact, even having been hospitalized for one as a child. Sometimes when I got one, I could not close my legs for the burning; I could not stop pacing the room; I urinated blood. But the agony was always temporary. You take your antibiotics, you take your pills that make your pee turn orange, you feel a little crazy for a couple of days and then it is done.

Except this time, it was not.

I tried to make the most out of the remainder of my trip—which then extended into London—but it was difficult. I was impatient for my stay on the island of pain to end. Surely once I got home to Chicago and could see my own doctor, I would get on the “right” drugs and I’d be fine in twenty-four hours. So we returned home, and my doctor, who knew I was prone to these infections, prescribed a stronger antibiotic over the telephone without making me come into the office. I began taking it gratefully.

I got worse.

What had been distracting and bothersome became blinding, all-consuming. My burning no longer happened only during or right after urination but was happening twenty-four hours a day. Eating seemed to make it worse. It grew difficult to function. I was exhausted from the pain, not sleeping, and had started peeing maybe 20 times a day at least. My bladder felt full constantly, as though with battery acid. The inflammation was so extreme I could feel it right through my skin, radiating heat and distended so that my lower stomach felt unnaturally tight and hot. Nothing alleviated it. I showed up at my doctor’s office and he ran a urine culture saying maybe the infection had spread to my kidneys. But this had not happened.

There WAS no infection. My urine was clean.

I went to my mother’s ostiopath. He gave me herbal supplements but they didn’t help. Like many inhabitants of Pain, I became desperate, without the usual sense of decorum and subtlety that people on the Mainland possess. I called my ostiopath too often and complained too stridently. I began to worry that maybe I was dying. I sounded, in short, like a crazy hypochondriac, since crazy hypochondriacs are sometimes indiscernible from people with real ailments the medical establishment does not understand. In truth, I could not be sure myself that I was not going Crazy, which is its own island adjacent to Pain. Maybe it was all in my head. It began to seem possible that one moment, a woman could be in Barcelona lying on topless beaches, seeing a Sheryl Crowe concert, smoking lots of hash with Spanish and Dutch friends, visiting Gaudi parks and having those delicious, vacation-specific afternoon long sex sessions with one’s husband . . . and that the next day she could be raving mad, driven to distraction and a mounting dread of life by physical agony that might not even be Real.

What was real? When you are in pain, it’s hard to tell. It’s in your head, they may tell you, and how can you prove it isn’t? Come in here, you want to say back—Come in here and let’s see how you like it; let’s see how well you cope. But you cannot peel back your skin and let others step in and poke around with their own pain receptors. Your sensations, your respective sanity or madness, are all inaccessible to them.

Maybe you don’t live on an island of Pain so much as become the island. Though, of course, metaphors fail. If you were an island, you would be one nobody wanted to visit. You would be prone to torrential storms that prohibited settlers from approaching your shores.

If you are not an island but a woman, you begin to wonder whether you can honestly go on living this way. You are 27 years old. You could conceivably live another 60 years. The thought of 60 more years, each stretched into its long days, its long hours, feels so unbearable, so overwhelming, that even if you have always been afraid of death you begin to think maybe it would be the “best thing.”Death begins to sound like a dangerous lover from whom you cannot stay away. Death begins to sound like the bad boy you know will be the end of you, but whom will get you out of your parents’ oppressive house, and so you cannot help but run off with him into the night at 17, when no one is looking, when it was not even something you had planned.

I began to take narcotic painkillers. A lot of narcotic painkillers. An addiction to Vicodin probably saved my life.

I alternated at first. Darvoset, large doses of Tylenol 3, which was weaker than the others but gave me a scraping feeling inside my stomach that I liked, that distracted me. Vicodin, or its stronger sister Norco. Percocet when I could get my hands on it. I drank very little alcohol because the fermented nature of it aggravated my bladder further, but I smoked copious amounts of pot.Sometimes I threw some Benadryl in for the hell of it, because though it did nothing to kill my pain, mixing it with the painkillers and weed made me more high so I didn’t care as much, yet didn’t increase my tolerance to the pills. I alternated so that I didn’t become immune to their affects, but sometimes I became immune anyway. Sometimes I took Vicodin after Vicodin at a party, hoping to numb myself out enough that I could smile and make small talk with people—so that I didn’t have to go home and cut myself with the unscrewed razor from my eyeliner sharpener, kept inside a felt cloth for that purpose now, and yet even when my ubiquitous silver pill case was empty the pain was still clawing inside my bladder like an animal determined to scrape its way through my skin and expose itself to the world.

Somewhere amid all this, in early 1996, I received a diagnosis. Interstitial Cystitis: an ulcerative, autoimmune condition of the bladder. It was said to be incurable but not necessarily progressive, and not actually “harmful” (if you don’t count being in blinding pain 24-7 to the point that you have to become a pill junkie “harmful”) to one’s long term health. It is no doubt indicative of my state of mind that this diagnosis actually seemed like good news. I was not insane. There were books about this illness; there were doctors who recognized it, though they did not actually know how to effectively treat it.

It probably goes without saying that, both before and after my diagnosis, sex was not a great deal of fun. And yet, I was determined not to relinquish it. To relinquish sex would be like making a space for Death on the couch. It would be saying goodbye to anything that made me a normal woman, a normal twentysomething person still in the prime of life—to what made me still me. I began to require extreme sensations, extreme scenarios, to transport me far enough away that the sex seemed pleasurable rather than torturous. Probably it makes little sense to say that, while I had always had an interest in kink, those were the years I most required it in vigorous and intense proportions. I just wrote a bit about that, but now I have deleted it; even after a decade, it doesn’t feel like something I can delve into here.  Suffice it to say that my husband was, at turns, befuddled, turned on, beleaguered, elated, exhausted. While I was busy popping pills, brewing Chinese herbs, seeing ostiopaths and chiropractors, attending a support group for people with IC (though it depressed me so deeply I never went back after meeting women who had had their bladders removed and lived on psychiatric medication), and becoming an incomprehensible fetishist, he had to continue doing all the “normal” things our lives required, like going to work, paying the mortgage. He worked long hours in finance and his firm was riddled with political unrest and in-house dramas. At times he seemed to me an infantile narcissist, pettily concerned with banalities that could not compare to my Life and Death situation. At other times he seemed a saint to put up with me—to still want to touch me, much less live with me—and I felt so grateful to have him I became as clingy as a child.

There were other things. Other factors. My husband’s issues as an adult child of an alcoholic were beginning to surface in the face of our stressful situation. There was a man with whom I began spending a great deal of time, who it would be fair to say was drawn to all the darker aspects of my personality, my life, while my husband wanted me “back” to the way I’d been before—wanted me healthy, which felt increasingly not even like a pipe dream but a bad joke.  Our marriage began to drift.

This was my life. 1997 came; 1998. There was no country of Healthy anymore. Other people lived there, but I could not even visit. The people in Healthy had strange concerns. They cried endlessly over brief love affairs gone wrong, or said “I wish I’d never been born” because they were having a hard time conceiving babies, or talked about their work problems as though these things carried the weight of a mass genocide. A close friend who was unhappily single once told me that I “had no problems” because I was married and my husband made good money.  She knew of my illness, but she herself was so ceaselessly healthy that to her it must have seemed abstract, somehow lesser than the difficulties of living alone in an apartment, sleeping alone in a wide bed at night. My friends’ language made no sense to me. Increasingly, I needed a translator to be among them. I was more comfortable among junkies, bipolars, survivors of cancer, who were, at the end of the day, always biding time, waiting for the next blow.

Yet I never really spoke of my illness. I followed a strange diet; I brewed tea with odd herbs; I took a lot of pills. Sometimes I cited the name of my disease as explanation for these habits, but I rarely elaborated. One thing everyone who lives in the country of Pain knows is that if you open up to somebody once about something that is fundamentally unchanging, constant, permanent, your “confidante” will begin to ask you about it frequently expecting some kind of progress report. They’ll say “How are you feeling today?” every time they see you, and if you keep saying, “Like slicing my arms open just to distract myself for one goddamn moment from the burning between my legs” they will not like this answer after hearing it for the 97th time. You will have officially become a buzz kill.Better to just say “Fine.” Better to just say nothing.

My years in the country of Pain are an episode of my life that is both integrated and self-contained.Now, in retrospect, the days, months, years blend together. All said and done, this period of my life lasted for three years and three months: from May 1995 to August 1998. At the time of its finale, I was living in Amsterdam with my husband. In the paradox that is life, my time in Amsterdam was both one of the best times of my life and also one of the most intensely unhealthy. Away from my doctors, my pain level escalated even beyond its usual state. There were days when all I could do was slam Famous Grouse scotch and smoke hash and pound Vicodin until I was incoherent, and still I could feel the edges of the pain snaking around me like a vice, strangling me. And yet, there were days at outdoor cafes and buying fresh vegetables at the markets near our apartment in the Jordaan; there were friends visiting and there was Paris and there was Brussels and there was London and there was Lausanne and there was still, strangely, an intoxicating infusion of sex and a falling-in-love-again with my husband amidst it all. There was a fear of flying that felt crippling and a continued flirtation with death. And then, abruptly, there was a visit to a health food store where I randomly described my symptoms to a Dutch employee of the store and she suggested the herb Pau D’Arco in larger doses than recommended on the bottle, and I tried it because I would try anything, with no hope or optimism that it would actually work when nothing else had, and within two weeks of popping 9-12 Pau D’Arco tablets daily, I was 100% pain free, off every other treatment from my Chinese herbs to my painkillers. I was, incredibly, a normal person again. Shell-shocked, perhaps, but incredibly—for the first time in more than 3 years—pain free.

One thing you tell yourself when you leave the Island of Pain is that you will never be one of those assholes again who sweats the small stuff. That you have learned what is Really Important, and that interpersonal dramas and posturing will no longer plague you—that you will be Grateful and Content with whatever life hands you so long as you remain healthy and pain–free. There are stories we tell ourselves. There are lessons we think we have learned. One is that Pain somehow elevates you from the rest of humanity, makes you more pure, makes you more wise. Maybe part of this is true. And in another, more-than-equal part, it is all bullshit. We all revert to a state of narcissism, which is, perhaps, the human condition. Before you know it, you are fighting with your spouse about the same crap everyone else fights about; before you know it, you are losing sleep over some ridiculous drama at work. It is true what they say about pain: the body cannot retain its memory of that primal state. The intensity is simply too much to cope with on any long term basis. At the end of the day, we all revert to a state of Normalcy if we can. Gratitude on a 24-7 basis holds out only so long.

It has been eleven years now since I left Pain behind and moved back to my native land. I have almost forgotten, now, what it was like to be a foreigner; what it was like to have lost my native tongue. For two years, I took Pau D’Arco daily out of fear, but eventually I stopped, just as I abandoned my Vicodin habit, my marital tumult, my cutting alone in my bathroom, my desire to end my life. Three years after my pain ended, I adopted two children, and five years later I had another, with a body I once believed incapable of even getting through a normal day much less bringing new life into the world intact. These days, I am just a Normal Woman, just a Normal Mom. A decade has worn down the memory of those days as an immigrant in Pain’s land. I tell myself, as all immigrants do, that now I am home for good: that I will never return to that land.

They told me that IC was “incurable” but that it could go into remission. I am, now, 41 years old. I have been in this remission for 11 years. Maybe, at any time, it could end, and there I would be, again. Back then, it was all I could do to get out of bed, to go to graduate school, to feed myself and speak to people and get through my day. Now, I have three children and run my own business and teach at two universities and run an online literary magazine and live with and financially support my elderly parents. If I were blindsided again that way, the consequences would not be the same. My stakes are higher. This time, I might not survive intact.

And so I wait. Or rather, I usually forget I am waiting. I relish the arrogance of forgetfulness, of normalcy. I am here, in my body, my normal body, right now. That other truth seems murky and impossible again. This is the arrogance of the human experience. Even though I have already touched that flame, it seems impossible, somehow, that such a thing could happen to ME.

Today is the official release date of Totally Killer, my first novel.

That’s what my oh-so-brief bio leads you to believe, anyway. “This is his first novel,” it says, as if I’d suddenly decided, after floundering about for the first thirty-five years of my life, to bang out a book, and a few months later, voilà.

As Hemingway concluded in his first novel, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

I’m in an elevator, with my 10 month old twin daughters in their obtrusively large twin stroller. We are headed to the pediatrician’s. Several other people are in the elevator with us, and most of them are staring at my daughters, which is a common response to babies in general, twin babies in particular, and Chinese twin babies with a Caucasian mother most of all. Though I have only had the girls for a few weeks at this point, I am already used to the stares. My husband says that going out with them is like going out with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (who are still married; it is 2001) because of all the attention. We make jokes like this; we think we are unflappable. We think people who adopt children from other countries and then freak out because people stare or ask questions are freaky and uptight.

A woman in the elevator turns to me and says, “Oh, they’re darling!” and I smile. I am still smiling when she says loudly, “How much did they cost?”

Here is a list of some of the more insane/offensive things I have heard in reference to my daughters:

*Aren’t you worried about bad genetics?

*Are you planning to teach them English?

*(in a public restroom: one friend calling to another in a toilet stall) Oh my God, Mary! You have to get out here and look at these adorable little twins this lady got in China!

*What a wonderful/heroic/noble thing you did! You saved those girls!

*So, have they attached to you yet? (I think they were 3 at the time we were asked this. We adopted the girls at 9 months of age.)

*Oh, Madeleine and Kenza are great—but you’ll see (I was pregnant with my son at the time), there’s nothing in the world like having your own baby!

Yet through it all, nothing has ever topped “What did they cost?” Perhaps because every other asinine question or statement has simply been . . . well, asinine (um, no, I was planning to converse with them in Mandarin forever and shield them from the English language, because the moment the adoption papers went through, I immediately became fluent in Mandarin through some kind of Republic of China thought control . . . ) Whereas the question “How much did they cost?” has a concrete answer—because every parent who adopts a child, in the United States or elsewhere, has to eventually make their peace with the fact that their child was once “for sale.”

In 2001, adopting twins in China cost roughly 23K. My husband and I called it the “two for one special,” since adopting a single child was at least 20K. The vast majority of the costs go to agencies in the United States, which is why getting two babies is barely any more expensive than getting one: the paperwork is the same. In China, there is mercifully little worry that somehow your child was “bought” from her birthparents as has been the case in Vietnam and other countries, since child abandonment, especially of girls, is common and no one would need to bribe an unwilling mother to part with her child. (Incidentally, on a statistical level a greater percentage of women in the U.S. give up their babies for adoption than in China, but because of China’s staggering population, a greater number of actual babies are available in China. Still, this is worth specifying since the U.S. conception of the Chinese tends to be that they’re tossing baby girls out as a norm, but a greater percentage of Chinese keep their babies than Americans.) Yet even if babies are not being “bought” from poverty-ridden parents, economics is what drives most who abandon their girls to do so.Prohibitive taxes on second children make admitting to having one impossible for many poor, rural families, and these same families need to have a son so that there is someone to work the land and care for them in their old age. In China, girls go to live with their in-laws when they marry, so elderly couples with only a daughter would be abandoned on a farm they can no longer work. In China, more than 75% of the country still farm for a living. In China, there is no Social Security.

They told us to bring crisp, new bills. This gave us the creeps. We felt like drug dealers. To assuage our feelings of uneasiness, we took the following photograph of our daughter Kenza Ling with the spanking new money we would turn over the next day to “purchase” her and her twin as our own:

 

We made jokes about Demi Moore and Indecent Proposal. We wanted a baby more than anything, and I was (at the time) infertile.  We would have done anything, you see.  Crisp new bills were nothing.

Now I wish they could have asked for something else. A kidney, maybe. A piece of my lung. My left hand. I would have given it gladly, in exchange for my daughters. If I had given a kidney instead of crisp new bills, when someone asked how much they cost I could say “Fuck you” and show them my scar. Instead, there is a concrete answer: “They cost 23,000 U.S. dollars.” An answer I obviously would not give in a crowded elevator, with my daughters right there. An answer I carry.

In the United States, I have heard of couples desperate for a white newborn paying six or seven times the amount I paid, often with most of it going directly to the birth mother. Yet because their children look like them racially, they are not asked this question in parks, in elevators. They will not be asked it someday, ten years from now when the fact of their adoption is so old hat that we barely even think of it, while helping to buy their daughters dresses for prom.

A kidney. A lung. My right hand. Take them. You can have them all.

I just want my daughters.