Appearances by Joanne Greenberg

In its nuanced portrait of a middle-aged suburbanite and his family, Appearances challenges easy assumptions about the nature of kinship and selfhood, of crime and punishment, of appearance and reality. Steven Howe—Boomer, lawyer, family man— has settled into midlife contentment. Then, unexpectedly, Steven finds himself doubly shaken by something that a data search uncovers his father, Alonzo "Lon" Howe, long assumed to have died in 1958. What follows is a series of revelations that shake Steven's perceptions of himself, his family, and his marriage. Unafraid of risking controversy in the pursuit of insight into the human condition, Appearances is Joanne Greenberg's finest, most challenging, and most compassionate novel.

  • ISBN: 1-932727-03-5
  • Price: $15.95 (paper)

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Chapter One
The problem was that his father had died away somewhere, and his mother had covered the facts of it with vagueness and silence. Steven wasn’t even sure when he had died. Was he seven or eight? There were no details of illness, hospital, or funeral, only "away from us." In the hollowness of loss, he had constructed fantasies. Don’t people say "dead and gone"? Doesn’t that show that some people die and aren’t gone? In his dream time and fantasy life, Steven believed his father to be one of these, dead but not gone. Even now, out of habit, he sometimes looked hard into the faces of bikers beside him at traffic stops, peered at them in roadside coffee shops until his looks brought glares or threatening gestures in return.
A treasured memory: Lon Howe wore a studded leather jacket, the arms fringed like a bird’s wing, because on the bike he would fly, and the fringes would stream behind his arms like feathers. Steven saw himself reaching out to touch those fringes, and the black leather gloves, fringed also, shining like an eagle’s talons.
Connie said, "Were you dreaming about him again last night, or about Annina? You were moaning and thrashing."
"I’m sorry. I threw the blankets off. You must have been freezing."
"Oh, Steve, it was awful, losing your mother that way, so suddenly, and there, with everyone."
"It’ll certainly change our Thanksgivings for years to come. It’s funny, though, that I should dream about my dad and not about Annina. She was so shy and withdrawn, poor woman; she doesn’t even get a dream out of me. Con, thanks for taking care of things."
"Did you expect to jump up and be normal? You’re still in shock."
Connie was the one who had made the calls and managed and decided things. She closed Ring and Wreath for two days; she called Steven’s secretary and had her cancel Steven’s appointments and defer his depositions and court appearances. Ring and Wreath was a bridal service, but Connie, a wedding planner, slipped easily into organizing the funeral. It was she who decided the service, the burial, the casket, the cost. Steven wanted to do some of his work at home, but he had no concentration to give. His mind slipped the line to his subject and floated off, carried by the wind of loss into a fog of sorrow.
A few days before the funeral, Connie sat down with the children and asked them if they wanted to go to Annina’s apartment for something to save—a keepsake. Steven said, "Before we do that, I’d like to go back to the projects where I grew up. Then I want to see Callan, where my dad’s people lived. Do any of you want to come?"
To his surprise, the three kids said yes, and the next day, he drove them back to his old neighborhood. It was a district still in the news for drug arrests and violence. He’d never taken any of them there, or Connie. Blocks of the old area had been swallowed by the highway interchanges Denver had put up in the seventies and eighties, and on the north side, by remodeling and gentrification.
The talk in the car was subdued. Their grandmother Howe had died sitting at the table in the Scotts’ big dining room. They had all thought she was dozing. She was the only Howe relative they had, Annina Masachetti Howe, the Italian war bride of Alonzo Carl Howe, PFC, also dead. She’d been proud of her grandchildren, stunned by their American success, and she was the only Italian on record, they’d joked, to cook spaghetti badly and make inedible lasagne. Steven realized with surprise that Jennifer, Jeremy, and Mike were being tactful for his sake, not kidding or playful as they brought up memories of her, going into an old event carefully, touching it delicately, and coming quickly away.
"When did you leave this part of town?" Jennifer asked. She was staring at the collection of struggling small businesses, the body and fender shops and boarded-up and decaying houses and stores. Other places sported signs for palm readers and psychics, and the handwritten notices of rooms for rent. Here and there, the struggle for beauty went on in tiny homes whose iron gratings against break-ins were hung with flower boxes, bare now in the winter, but some strung with early Christmas decorations.
"I left when I got work with my first law firm. Then I could take Annina with me."
The three were silent. Steven thought they must be trying to imagine him growing up in such a neighborhood, trying to see themselves coming and going on these streets. He rounded the corner and there it was, the complex, four stories high and four blocks wide, set off at each end by liquor stores. The abutting streets had been intended to open onto a garden, but the central patch had always been bare, littered with garbage and broken glass. The pink stucco walls of the building were pitted with bullet holes.
"Wait . . . stop," Jeremy called as Steven began to drive past. "Let’s get out and look the place over."
"Yeah, Dad," Mike said, "which window was yours?"
Steven pulled to the curb and they all alighted with care.
Steven was a man, now, fit and well muscled, but he felt the old fear moving him and he looked around for Dill or Shiv or B.C., the bullies of a hundred encounters and a thousand clutches of stomach cramp and heaves of nausea. All the lower windows were barred and locked. The four visitors stood at the entrance to the screened-off yard in silence, imagining.
"Where does all this broken glass come from?" Mike asked.
"From broken liquor bottles. The kids find the bottles in the morning, sometimes with drunks still attached to them. They take the bottles, drink what’s left, and throw the bottles against the side of the building. It used to be an official game— someone would spray paint a target and the kids would keep score."
"Where did you go to school?"
"It’s four blocks over. We can stop by there, if you want to. The junior high was about ten blocks away."
"You fought . . ." Jeremy said.
"Oh, yes, within the races and between the races. People’ll tell you racism is taught to kids by their elders, but I think the grown people here, white, black, and brown, all wanted to live in peace. It was the kids who kept the wars alive, particularly in junior high."
Mike, the youngest, was just out of high school and his memories of junior high were fresh enough for him to shiver for a moment.
"Did you have gangs?" Jennifer was turning, letting the scene unfold around her.
"The white gangs were into heavy commerce," Steven said, "selling stolen goods. The black kids were just discovering drug dealing, and the Chicanos—they weren’t called that then—were making and selling weapons: zip guns and switchblades. Life was hardest on the kids who wanted to stay out of the gangs. To be honest, the kids like me, the ones who stayed out, weren’t the brightest or the most gifted."
They stood and took that in. Steven still marveled at the differences among his three children: Jennifer, the dramatizer; Jeremy, the organizer; Mike, the thoughtful one.
Jennifer gestured toward the heavy battered door. "Could we go inside?"
Steven shook his head. "I don’t want to leave the car."
"I’m getting cold," she said, "but I want to look around. Why don’t we go two by two, case the joint."
"I’ll stay by the car and the three of you can walk around together, but don’t go inside."
"Can we drive to the school, too?"
"Sure, if you want." Steven was surprised at their interest. "Be careful," he said.
He meant that they should look out for the young residents, two or three of whom had drifted in and out of the building. The apartment dwellers eyed them with suspicion but not with hostility, or at least not yet. That could change with an electrical suddenness, he knew, and the three of them, his precious, carefully raised children, who were neither streetwise nor angry, didn’t even know what their innocent looks or gestures might signal.
A chain-link fence separated the sides of the building from the street, probably for the protection of the small children. Each structure had four floors, each floor four apartments. Four buildings, all the same, made up the complex. Steven remembered how his anxiety had always risen as he passed the other buildings, then eased as he turned into his own, rising again as he entered the foyer. In that unprotected place, he’d seen beatings, had had a few, and had witnessed, from the stairs, two rapes. Cries and screams had always been studiously ignored by the four tenant families on the ground floor.
The memory made him wonder why he had felt such an urgent need to come back here. He was watchful, leaning against the car in a too markedly casual way. If something went wrong, he wanted to be ready to act.
The three had disappeared from sight around the corner. Jeremy looked strong enough, and although Mike was smaller, lighter, he wasn’t someone who seemed easy to intimidate. Steven marveled at how narrow his and Annina’s days had been in this ugly place, how pinched life had become in the years after his father’s death. He had been brought here from Callan, the mountains, the light and air, and his father. All around their barricaded rooms in this place, violence and noise had heaved in waves through the evenings and nights. Holidays intensified the clamor, and long before he began making the money that would free them, fear must have clamped Annina mute and shrunk her spirit.
Here they came around the corner, laughing and talking. He watched them cross the central area, now paved. The concrete there was buckled and upthrust, covered with gleaming scatters of broken glass. He saw Jennifer trip and go upward over the lip of the fault. Mike was reaching out to pull her from the air and Jeremy turned as she fell.
For a moment, Steven thought she might have been shot. He ran to where she lay, Mike still holding on to her down jacket. "Are you all right?"
"I tripped, that’s all."
He was relieved and the relief erupted in annoyance. "Didn’t you see the bad spot? That piece of concrete was sticking up like a shelf."
"I was talking," she said defensively. "I didn’t notice it." She lay in the broken glass. "Wait, I’m all right. Let me catch my breath."
Some young girls had approached, gathering to see what had happened. Their presence made Steven try to urge Jennifer up.
"Has any of that glass cut you?"
"I don’t think so. Just let me lie here for one more minute."
When she rose, he saw that she hadn’t been cut, although her down jacket had small rips here and there, and from several of them, delicate feathers had begun to escape. The jacket, Steven realized, had saved her from the glass.
"I’m really all right," she objected, and noticing the increasing crowd, she began busily to dust herself off, waking a small swirl of tiny white down. "Let’s see the school," she said.
At the school, they got out again, and Jennifer made a point of walking around it. Steven noticed that when she thought she was out of his sight, she limped slightly and held her left arm.

Praise for Appearances

Joanne Greenberg, one of the great storytellers of our time, has outdone herself in Appearances. Here is a rich, exciting, moving novel of family life—one that explores the complex, mysterious, painful bonds between parents and children, and between past and the present. Joanne Greenberg looks deep into the hearts and lives of her characters to ask hard questions: what, in extreme circumstances, are the sources of healing for our bodies and for our spirits? Appearances is one of the most beautiful novels I have read in years, one guaranteed to open the hearts and widen the vision of readers everywhere.

Jay Neugeboren — author of Imagining Robert, The Stolen Jew, Open Heart, and other books

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