Erna Cooper


Ed Burns' Portrait of ERNA COOPER









Sarah caught the bus up Woodstock Road just in time to avoid the long queues outside Debenham’s on this busy November afternoon. As she stepped off just before the roundabout, to the east of Port Meadow, she caught a sharp wind and a sudden, heavy cloudburst. Sarah flipped her umbrella open as fast as possible, tightened her silk scarf and pulled her béret over her ears to keep from catching cold. She’d forgotten how bitter the wind got so early in Oxford, while the rest of Europe had a few weeks before suffering, and ducked her head down, as she ran across the street to The Walnuts’ Guest House. After a few moments, during which her umbrella turned inside out and died, Sarah was ushered into the lobby of this quaint reconverted house by a nervous, scrawny woman with glasses.

‘You Miss. Caldwell?’ said the housekeeper, adjusting her spectacles and blinking her magnified eyes, as Sarah peeled off layers of clothing.

‘Yes. I’m hoping my parents have arrived and are in separate rooms,’ she said, flashing a stiff, toothy American grin.

‘Two people arrived. Didn’t know they were related, but they came together an ’ave been given the single and the suite just upstairs to the left and centah,’ said the Guest House manager in Oxford cockney. Those are your parents, ah they? From America?”

‘Yes, yes,’ Sarah nodded, grinning awkwardly, not sure how to explain it all, or if to explain. The English like as few words as possible.

The housekeeper pointed up the staircase with her yellow dishwashing glove. ‘They’re up theah, if you’d like to go see ‘em. One of ‘em just wen’ out.’

‘Out where?’

‘Don’t know, Madam. She said she wan’ed a look ‘round, so I told’eh to take the bus down Woodstock.’

Sarah looked distressed. ‘Mom always has to go look around when she arrives somewhere new. She’ll never get back up here before dark, now that it’s rush hour.’

‘She can take a taxi back, I told’eh,’ the manager replied, as Sarah stared at the floor.

‘Busy bee that she is, she probably went down to college to look for me, not knowing I’d already come up here. Hopefully the porters will get her back safely,’ Sarah resolved to herself, now seeing that she’d have time alone with her father. ‘So my Dad’s here, is he?’

‘Must be. No one’s come ou’ o’ the side room ye’. Older man, is ‘e?’

‘Yes.’ Sarah smiled, relieved.

The housekeeper blinked curiously, adjusted her spectacles again. ‘Well, ‘e’s probly restin’ up. I’ was a long flight for ‘em, was i’?’ she said.

‘Yes. About ten hours.’
‘You best be tip-toein’ up then, Madam,’ she whispered back.

‘Thank you,’ Sarah said softly, and floated up the stairs.
 As Sarah creaked open the door slowly, she saw her father’s silhouette crouched over in the fetal position, his left hand bracing his temples like Le Penseur.

‘It’s me,’ he said, lifting his head slightly, as she crept across the room to the chair next to the window.

‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you.’

‘That’s OK kid. I never sleep. I just close my eyes.’ 
Sarah crept over to the bed, kissed her father softly on the cheek, and crept back to her chair.

‘How are ya kiddo?’


‘Is your mother gone?’

‘She went to town.’

‘How? I don’t even know where we are.’

‘You know her.’

‘Yeah. She never stops talking.’

Mr. Caldwell slowly moved his legs around the edge of the bed to sit up. He rubbed his puffy eyes with a tissue and put his glasses on, so he could see the daughter he hadn’t laid eyes on in seven years.

‘You talked?’

‘No. I didn’t say a word the whole trip, except when we needed to get the bus from London. From there on it was endless.’

‘Who did she talk to?’

‘Everyone on the bus.’

‘You took the same flight? I was afraid of that.’

‘I thought you planned it.’

‘No. I had a feeling, though. There were only two flights on British Air out of LAX yesterday, and I figured it might happen.’

‘You’re trying to kill your old man?’

Sarah chuckled uncomfortably. ‘No. Sorry dad. I was trying to make it a little easier on me. I figured you’d find each other and would arrive the same day, so I didn’t have to worry tomorrow.’

‘What’s tomorrow?’

‘My defense.’

‘What’re you defending?’

‘My philosophy, views … feelings about women’s history,’ she said instinctively, as if something out-of-body had chosen the terms.

‘I thought it was done.

‘It is. Don’t worry. The graduation’s on. I just have to go up to Sheffield tomorrow, ‘cause the last bit got screwed up. It’s just a formality. I’m sure there will be no problem. We’ll all be out of here in a few days.’

‘Good. ‘Cause I’ve been waiting.’

‘You’ve been waiting?’

‘Hey, kid. I don’t care if you have a PhD or cut grass for a living. As long as you’re happy.’

‘I’m happy. I’m happy … it’s almost over.’

‘Good, kid. I’m proud of ya,’ he said, and leaned back slowly against the headboard, in pain.

‘How are you? You’re starting to look like Jack Lemmon.’

‘Yeah. I look like an old Jew now. I used to look like Cary Grant.’

‘That’s when you had hair. You don’t look like you eat much now.’

‘I’m sick, kiddo.’ He leaned over the nightstand, clumsily.

‘Come over here, please, and turn on the light. I can’t find any light switches in this place. I had to take a crap in the dark.’

‘They’re usually not where you’d look for ‘em here in England.’ Sarah walked over to the entryway, and found something on a sidewall and flipped a switch, turning on the lamp over the nightstand.

‘The bathroom lights are always on the outside, because too many Englishmen electrocuted themselves with devices (she motioned with her hand), so you won’t find any electric switches or plugs on the inside.’

‘Never heard ‘o’ such a thing,’ said Mr. Caldwell, scratching his head and squinting. ‘Come over here and help me. I need to take two pills. One pink and one yellow.’

‘What for?’ she said, scrutinizing the bottles next to the odd change and wallet scattered across the nightstand.

‘I had my tubes unblocked last week. That’s why you couldn’t reach me.’

‘You were in the hospital and didn’t tell me?’

‘I didn’t want to upset you.’

‘You insisted on coming.’

He nodded twice. ‘I insisted, I insisted. Yes.’

‘I bet your girlfriend was thrilled.’

‘She wanted me to cancel.’

Sarah nodded. ‘Did she tell you I called with our Paris reservation?’

He shook his head, then Sarah nodded again.

‘She’s dying, Sarah, for Christ’s sake.’

There was a strange silence, as Sarah focused intensely at the diamond-shaped pattern in the carpet and how it blurred and multiplied if she stared too long.

‘It’s probably cancer.’

‘How d’you know?’ he looked up at her, amazed, then doubtful. He’d been told to doubt science as a child.

‘Dad,’ said Sarah impatiently, ‘she smoked herself into a corner. Without a stimulant beyond the wit of TV Guide, what would you expect? Having seen her seldom over the years, I cannot remember an expression beyond staring people down, puffing a Marlboro, until she figured out what cosmopolitan America was trying to say.’

‘I never liked those crime shows. And Louise likes gardening, anyway.’

Sarah’s eyes darted at her father, frustrated; she sighed, deflated. Her gaze seared back in a silence that felt black and cold. Mr. Caldwell looked up at Sarah, disgusted, as the slow time of provincial life had always suited him. He was relieved by the divorce from, if not the memory of, a competitive lifestyle once inflicted upon him by a Hollywood wife. He never had great ambitions beyond filling small-town women with the thrill that they were ‘smashing’, whether they wore real diamonds and pearls or the glass and plastic he sold them.

Sarah was never happy with his vision of the world, though she loved her Dad unconditionally. Sitting in the cold corner of her father’s room, she remembered summers and holidays spent cleaning and labeling all the costume jewels and vinyl bags he sold middle-aged ladies in bottle-blond locks and bubble-gum lip gloss. She dreamt of what real things looked like on women who wore natural colors, and wondered why he had tried to sell her mother’s opal ring to a customer before giving it to her for their anniversary.

‘I don’t know why you think you need to get a college degree instead o’ getting married. I’d be happy with you either way.’

Her mind struck deep, like a knife, before pulling out words. ‘I figured, one day, Dad… when you left us for that woman… Pancha Moreno – that was her name, right? – I figured that Mom had never been too happy watching the laundry go ‘round and ‘round, to fall where it started seventeen years earlier, while her drawings sat unframed in a closet.’

Sarah paused again, as her father scratched his forehead in great confusion. ‘See… despite what they say on television, industrial products don’t stimulate all women’s minds the way books and paintings do. Not all of us were born dreaming of Ajax. And not all of us want to find Pancha Moreno’s love letters to you, after giving up college for holy matrimony.’

‘What letters?’

‘The ones I found in your dresser drawer. She’s still writing to you, isn’t she?’

‘Bring me a cup of water, will ya kid? I gotta take these,’ said Mr. Caldwell, reaching out a pleading hand with two pills.

‘There’s no bottled water here?’

‘There’s no nothin’! I looked for a minibar when we got in. No minibar.’

‘No minibar? No icebox?’

‘No ice! I wanted to have a glass o’ gin and there’s no ice in this God damned place.’

‘What were you doing having a glass of gin right out of the hospital?’ Sarah asked, pouring her father a cup of tap water from the bathroom.

‘Ah, jeez!’ said Mr. Caldwell, shaking his head and squinting like he was sucking a lemon, as he gulped down the pink and yellow. ‘You know a glass o’ gin won’t kill ya. If you drink a glass of gin a day, you’ll live to be eighty.’ He rubbed his puffy eyes again.

‘And the Queen Mother lived to be a hundred.’

‘I thought she drank scotch.’

‘You’re right. But she ain’t no Ashkenazi Jew.’ ‘What does that mean?’

‘She can have it. You can’t. Jews don’t have the constitution of Vikings and Englishmen.’

‘I’m Polish.’

‘That’s right. Ok – with one exception.’

‘So where’s your mother?’

‘Out. I just told you that.’

‘You did? I’m sorry. I’m tired, kid,’ said Mr. Caldwell, holding his forehead as he lay back against the pillow.

‘You look bad, Dad. Don’t get me wrong… I’m glad you came for my graduation. But you look… un-well.’

‘Come over here, I have something for you to hold onto for the next couple o’ days.’


‘Here. And don’t tell your mother. Or she’ll make ‘em dump me in the back garden.’

‘What are you talking about?’

Sarah read the card he slipped from his wallet. ‘State Farm Insurance.’

‘Here’s the number to call in case something happens. There’s an ID number there somewhere.’

‘What’s this for?’ She read the green card: ‘Shipping and handling of body pre-paid. What is this?’

‘In case something happens to me while I’m on this trip, I pre-paid for my return – body bag, and airfare via “freight” all included. All you have to do is call your brother.’

Sarah’s heart sunk. ‘You thinkin’ about going soon?’

‘Just hold onto it, will ya?’ he said, slightly irritated, and sat back against the headboard. ‘I just know I don’t have a lot of money anymore, and I managed to pay for this so you didn’t have to worry.’

Sarah went back to her chair silently, and put the cards in her purse. She stared at the old, bent-over man, who used to take her on long-distant runs and ski trips – the man who always said: ‘Everything’s gonna be OK, kid, don’t worry, you can do it,’ even when it meant jumping off a ten meter platform into ice cold water. He was noticeably smaller and more fragile than he’d ever been, and looked as if he’d aged twenty years in half that time.

‘Why should I call Daniel, if you’ve already made arrangements?’

‘Because you should. That’s all. I can’t understand how you two don’t talk.’

‘Because he forbade me coming here. He disapproved of me being anything other than an economist. And then he married that cocktail waitress with the spending habit.’

‘He disapproved of you?’

‘Ask him. I find it ironic, actually, expecting your little sister to become Alan Greenspan, then purchasing a mail-order bride who idolizes Imelda Marcos.’

‘That’s no reason…’ He began wagging and holding his forehead in grief. It was a no-win situation.

‘What could I possibly have to say?’ she let go a carriage that outweighed the strength of her heartstrings. ‘I have no idea what his number is, anyhow, or where he lives.’

‘It’s on the back of one of his old business cards. It’s in there somewhere,’ he said, handing Sarah his wallet. Mr. Caldwell lay down and turned over on his side, in pain.

Sarah pulled out everything packed inside the billfold and pulled out her brother’s old card written in Kanji.

‘He’s in Chicago now. It’s on the back. He’s been there five years.’

‘Oh,’ she said softly, stilled by the sight of her father in pain. Sarah took the card back to her purse, on the chair next to the window, and sat down quietly, staring at his broken figure.

Having studied all night, Sarah was tired this afternoon. She turned the lights out and fell asleep in the comfortable armchair, as the sun set early over the cold river valley. An hour of peace washed over them, when suddenly her father awoke with a jolt. Sarah could see his sweaty face lightly outlined, in the blue light cast through the window from the street.

‘Are you ok Dad?’


‘Bad dream?’

He sat up in his bed, as Sarah turned on the furnace next to the window. It beat like a light tambourine, as the heat rose up and melted the foggy panes.

‘They always put these things where the heat escapes. You ok?’

‘Yeah,’ he said, scratching his head and sitting up, smiling oddly at his daughter. Mr. Caldwell walked over to the sink, washed his face and forehead and chuckled softly to himself, as he sipped more tap water from the bathroom. ‘It’s funny what you remember when you’re an old fart, kid,’ he said, walking back to the edge of the bed.

Leaning elbows on his knees, he stared at the floor, smiling and nodding oddly – as if wanting and yielding to confession.

‘What is it?’

He waved his hand at Sarah and shook his head again, glancing away, as if locked in the astral plane.

‘It’s amazing what you remember in your sleep.’

‘I thought you didn’t dream?’

‘I don’t. You just remember strange shit when you get to be my age.’

‘Like what? You rob a bank or something, when you were a kid?’

He looked up at her, smiling and squinting into the bathroom light, with a nod.

‘When I was about fifteen, during the summer of 1947, I got a job selling door-to-door.’

Sarah sat up, curious and alert. ‘Really? Selling what?’

Mr. Caldwell nodded and chuckled softly again. Stroking his stubbed chin, he gazed at the flowered wallpaper as he spoke.

‘I got a job to get out of the house…’ he started slowly, losing his feigned Jewish jargon to the old voice of his childhood, ‘selling vacuum cleaners. Eureka vacuum cleaners, I think it was. We had gone to war and my father had just died of heart failure… like me,’ he said, turning to Sarah. ‘But they didn’t have anything to give him, and there was no heart surgery, so he just died.’ Mr. Caldwell paused and turned to face the moonlight. ‘So there was my mother. Alone. She had siblings in Canada, but basically mother was alone. She was a loner-type anyhow. Never liked people much, except uncle Simon. He went deaf, but they played poker until the day she died. She didn’t work when Dad died. How could she? She only knew Yiddish, and we’d just come from Calgary down to Los Angeles. So the kids went to work. My sister, Alana got a job modeling clothes downtown. Bella, since she was oldest, took care of the rest of us. Fortunately, she got a job writing for radio, and my brother… I don’t remember what he did. Sold hats, I think. And we all brought our paychecks home to mother.’

Sarah knew some of this, but sat back silently, sensing there would be new material.

‘So I got a job selling these vacuum cleaners.’

‘How could you sell vacuum cleaners, when you hate electric things? You kill everything made with wires. Last time you thought the new fridge needed replacement, you forgot to plug it in.’

‘Yeah I know, but in those days everyone needed a vacuum cleaner.’

‘Who needed a vacuum cleaner during World War II?’

‘All the women at home. See, all the men were at war – young men, some married, some not. Most of the young housewives, in those days, were home alone… for years. So I figured selling vacuums door-to-door was a good idea.’

‘So what kind of pitch did you give ‘em, Dad? I know you’re a great salesman – especially with female clientèle –, but you know nothing about vacuums. I never saw you use one.’

‘I never used one. Never knew how to use one. Didn’t need to.’

He laughed, then wept with his head in his hands. Sarah remembered how her father sometimes wept from commercials and childhood memories of poverty, when his father worked with his sore hands, to build the railroads of Alberta, during the winter of 1920. The image of war, on the other hand, left him cold and indifferent – a contradiction that amazed Sarah now, as she watched her father blink back tears of pleasure and pain, like a schoolboy.

‘I never used a vacuum. I never used one!’ he said excitedly.

‘They must have slammed the door in your face.’


‘They felt sorry for you, did they? Bought your supply out of pity.’

‘No, no. Better than that.’ He stood up, reached an arm out and clenched his fist. ‘They grabbed me by the collar and pulled me in!’

‘For what?’

‘Sex. I had sex… up and down Jefferson Avenue! Sold every- thing I had!’

‘You had sex with these women? With war-stricken housewives?’

‘I was raped,’ he said, weeping and smiling, his eyes glazed over in a happy trance. ‘It was the best thing that ever happened to me! It was the best thing that ever happened to me, that war!’ he exclaimed, deliriously. ‘It was the best time of my life.’

Sarah sat still, staring at her father’s blue face, in the twilight cast through the window. She gazed into his eyes and clutched the ends of her armchair, stiff from the cold creeping through the windowpane and the image of her father’s release from what seemed, to her, a prison with the woman who hung up on her for ten years.

‘Thousands of men went out West for gold and sunshine.’

‘And you found Eureka.’

‘On Jefferson Avenue.’ His eyes stood still, dazed like a cat’s in the night. 
Sarah clawed herself up out of the chair she’d warmed, and led her father back to bed. ‘Would you like to rest a bit before dinner, Dad? I’m sure Mom will be back soon, and we have a few hours to relax.’

She couldn’t wait to get out before he got too specific about the dream.

‘You planned dinner? That’s great, kid,’ said Mr. Caldwell, lying back on his pillow, exhausted. He reached an arm behind his head and looked up at the painted flowers on the ceiling, like a child under the moon and stars in the desert sky.

Sarah tiptoed softly to the door, and as she creaked it open, her father turned to her, alert for the first time that evening: ‘Make sure you get some ice for tomorrow, kid, will ya?’ he said softly.

‘Sure Dad. Please go to sleep,’ Sarah whispered, and crept downstairs to the kitchen, where she asked the housekeeper to make ice for tomorrow morning’s Bloody Mary. Though not the standard request, the manager honored it ‘as an exception to the rule,’ and Sarah retired to the sitting room for a glass of port. She called the lodge at college, where her mother had stopped to order a taxi, as Sarah expected. After a rest by the fire, she made her way to the foot of the stairs, just as the housekeeper emerged from the kitchen with a suit.

‘These are for ya dad,’ she said softly to Sarah. ‘Don’t tell me husband I pressed ‘em. It’s not the usual ‘abit ‘round’ea to be doin’ the pressin’.’

‘Dad’s used to hotels,’ said Sarah apologetically.

The weary-eyed bird could sense Sarah’s concern, patted her on the shoulder softly and said, ‘That’s ok, dea’. Don’t worry yourself ‘bout i’. The ice’ll be ready when you come back from dinna.’

‘Thank you.’

Sarah crept up the stairs and slipped into her father’s dark room with the suit. On her way out, she turned back and sat down next to her father, bent over on his side. She put her hand on his shoulder gently and whispered, ‘I love you, Dad.’ But there was no response. ‘Dad?’ she said again, and walked over to the other side of the bed. ‘Dad!’ Again nothing. Sarah put her ear up to his nose, as she had done years ago, when he first went to the hospital. But there was nothing. No breathing. No sound. She took his wrist, in a panic, and felt nothing. It happened so suddenly, so quietly, in the dark.
















Erna Cooper is a writer and artist born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She studied fine art and drama at NYU, and is a graduate of UCLA (English) and Oxford University (Modern Languages). She has written and produced theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Scotland, and has worked as a teacher and freelance journalist in the US and Europe, publishing her work on BBC radio, in World Literature Today, Cultural Weekly, and the Austrian Times. Cooper has done portrait commissions and published fiction and non-fiction books and articles on art and healing, women’s literature, French-American relations, and has adapted screenplays. While at Oxford, she won ‘proxima accessit’ for the Rex Warner Literary Prize (for short fiction). Her new book, Chiaroscuro: Aesthetics, Values and Autobiography in Willa Cather and Marguerite Duras will be published by Peter Lang’s Cultural Identities Series in 2016.


When not working, she enjoys long walks by the water, collecting shells.


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