Is It Over Yet? The Trouble With Telling An Ending From A Beginning

January 12, 1992|By Stephen Vicchio

TC W( Let us watch well our beginnings.

--Alexander Clark

The game isn't over till it's over.

--Yogi Berra

My wife thinks I spend too much time in the shower. Sometimes I can sense her sneaking nervously into the bathroom to make sure I have not fractured my skull by stepping on a misplaced bar of deodorant soap. This morning I could feel her lurking out there in the steam, deciding if it would be prudent to tap the opaque sliding door before she moved it along its little aluminum track, so that she might properly identify the body. I really should tell her I take these long showers because they are among the only events in my life where the beginning and the end are so clearly defined.

I don't remember when I began having this problem deciding when things begin or end. I think it began when my maternal grandfather died a few months before my fifth birthday, though, as I said, I'm not really certain about these matters. He used to sit in an overstuffed green reclining chair. He always read books without any pictures. Sometimes, in the midst of reading, he would stop and notice me. Then he would put his hand deep in his pleated trousers and pull out pennies for me. Then, one day he died. I was too young to read Chesterton. He could have told me that the trouble with the last time is that we so rarely know it is the last time. After my grandfather died, I continued to look for him in the green reclining chair with the brown wooden lever. I thought he must still be there, only smaller. I don't know how or when I decided no longer to look for him.

I know this problem about discovering the beginning and end of things was already a great difficulty when I was on my summer vacation between the first and second grades. I think the nuns could not decide whether I had passed or not. I think they told my mother they would wait and see. They left blank the little box marked "promoted to grade 2," on the back of my Manila-colored report card.

In the heat of the summer, with my mother's mouth full of wooden clothes pins, and her attention turned toward hanging my father's enormous, pitch-covered work clothes out to dry, I would sneak into the drawer filled with dead flashlights, faded Polaroid photographs and important family papers. I would stare at the back of my report card and wonder just when the first grade would come to an end.

That same summer, I remember my mother telling me, sometime in early June, that I could stay out to play until it got dark. I remember sitting on the hill behind Johnny Hucke's house, with the twilight gathering. I thought to myself: "Is this real darkness?" and then, a moment later, "No, maybe this is darkness." Deeper into the heart of summer it was more than a minor consolation to me that the fireflies seemed to share my confusion.

In September, I lined up for school with the new first-graders, but the good sisters, without any help from me, had somehow decided over the summer that I had the stuff for the second grade, so they sent me along to mass with my former classmates. I figured somewhere in my permanent record -- the one that the FBI might come along and want to look at someday -- some very official School Sister of Notre Dame had checked the all-important box on the back of my first report card. But I marveled, even then, about how that anonymous nun could be so sure.

Back then, I had the hardest time knowing when I was in or out of trouble. When I was about 8 years old my mother bought a little wooden wall-hanging marked "The Vicchio's Dog House." Beneath the simple white A-frame doghouse hung an assortment of tiny canines each marked with the first name of my parents or one of their children. The object was for one of the Vicchio pooches always to occupy the A-frame. I had little difficulty in understanding how my mother knew when to put me in the

doghouse, but it was always a genuine mystery how she decided just when to return my little Dalmatian to its silver hook.

Many years later, I became an adult. I don't know when or how it happened. These are difficult matters to decide in a culture where one's only rites of passage are supplied by the Motor Vehicle Administration and the Liquor Board. At what moment did I cease to be a child? And when did my parents have the good sense to stop treating me as one? At what Archimedean point did the world tilt and my mistakes become mine alone?

I know now that I am deep into adulthood. But I am not sure yet if I am middle-aged. My jump shot is going. And I can't remember the names of my graduate-school classmates -- people to whom, over beers at a bar called Rudy's, I pledged my undying loyalty.

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