My father had a talent for malice. He could inspire deep emotions in people, which made it easy for people to love him and hate him. It’s been said many times and it’s worth saying here: you cannot truly hate someone you don’t know well. The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.
If your feelings are stirred enough to love someone you may find it an easy leap to hatred when the time comes. The betrayal of trust/withdrawal of sympathy brings malice. My father, frequently betrayed and disappointed by those he trusted, was a master of malice.
He could move people, stir their emotions. He was probably the best funeral speaker I’ve ever seen, with the possible exception of a very talented rabbi friend of mine. My father’s ability to touch a place deep within people gave him charisma. He drew people to him, at work, in his life. He had style and was verbally adroit. He engaged people easily. He could express deep things with casual ease, create a quick familiarity. He’d form fast, deep friendships with people who’d laugh at his quick ironies and nod over the heavy insights he sometimes dropped into the conversation.
“Your father is a heavy cat,” said Russ, my father’s hipster friend, a bass player and lifelong recreational drug user. He gave me my first taste of cocaine, from the pitted blade of his old penknife, when he came up from what the adults were doing around the dining room table. During dinner he’d asked if he could stop up to rap later, I nodded, then went to brood and listen to the B side of My Goal’s Beyond.
“Is that Dave Liebman on soprano?” he asked. I looked at the album cover and told him it was. He knew Dave, had played with him, liked his style. “Your father is a motherfucker, and a heavy cat and I know he can bust your balls– I know he does bust your balls, and it’s a father and son thing and I do it with Adam and Hal and I can’t give you a good excuse for it. But you know how much I love him, and Arlene loves him, too.”
And they did, and I knew. They loved everything my father said, and they always had animated conversation and a lot of laughs. Whatever my father said was taken in with knowing expressions. He basked in the glow of their fond attention, as they dug each trenchant, sharp or wickedly subversive turn. They were my parents’ best friends and I remember how much the four of them always laughed. They talked politics too, and of things important to them all, but it’s the laughter I remember most. Arlene and Russ were night owls, and they’d often hang out well past midnight, howling and talking, Arlene chain smoking and the house taking on that exotic cigarette smell of the adult world back then.
After Russ died I spent a few days up at their place near the Delaware Water Gap. Russ used to drive the 80 miles to the city for gigs, it took him about an hour in his VW bug with the bass lying down in there somehow. Arlene was a fast driver too and it was nothing for either of them to pop into the car and show up in the city, or for a late dinner in Queens. Arlene and I walked on a rolling hill she told me, in the voice of a tired activist who’d lost, developers had recently bought.
“Russ and I smoked many a bowl walking on these hills,” she told me, taking out a short-stemmed corn cob pipe. I knew she hadn’t smoked for years, but she filled the bowl and we paused at a beautiful spot and I cupped my hands around hers as she lit the match.
“You know how much I love your parents,” she said, as the sunset began. I told her I did. “Well, I tell you this for whatever use you can make of it. You may not find it immediately useful, but I think you may have a use for it at some time. I know you blame yourself for your parents being so unhappy, and they blame you for it too. It’s natural for you to feel that you’ve let them down, or that you’re a disappointment to them, and that you’re the reason they’re so unhappy.”
” You know, you are so talented and sensitive and the Mozart IQ and all that and you’re 25 and you haven’t cured cancer and you haven’t been recognized as this generation’s Picasso. It’s not you, Elie, you really have nothing to do with it, as hard as that might be for you to understand. Your parents are just both very unhappy people. They have a lot of great qualities and you know how much I appreciate them, they’re my best friends. But they’re unhappy, both of them, it’s just the way they are, and it really has nothing to do with you, except that you have to bear the brunt of that unhappiness. And I wish you didn’t have to, and I hope you won’t have to. I think you won’t have to, if you really take in what I’m telling you.”
We finished the bowl and almost immediately I felt like Arlene had pulled the chain and a light bulb had gone on in a room that had always been dark. It was like the moment when Eli told me how the infant Irv had been terrorized by his insane violently angry mother. A twice in a lifetime moment of sudden understanding, a moment I am very grateful for.
Arlene is long gone now too, as is my mother. Russ was the first to go, I don’t recall that there was a funeral, as such, though I remember hanging out at the house up there for a couple of days. I recall that my father was there, and my mother and sister. The reason I don’t recall a funeral is because I don’t remember my father speaking, which he would have. There’s nobody to confirm this now, though I can run it by my sister, who might remember.
The past is largely the work of the imagination now, something I’ll try to conjure as much as I can in the next few weeks.