The skeleton of my father, as often happened to the man when he was alive, woke up in a vaguely foul mood. “I’m walking on the ocean floor, sideways, clicking my claws,” the skeleton warned.
So be it. You know, progress is rarely a straight linear thing anyway. You take two steps forward, one back, you write a haiku about peace, step sideways, click your claws, gnash your terrible teeth. I’ve been alive long enough to see this process many times. It doesn’t mean we can’t or don’t change, it means we have to keep working on the process.
“Funny to get a lecture about work from you,” said the skeleton. “But let’s leave that hilarity aside for the moment. I understand that you really believe I was, in some real way, a little bit insane, and that you, from the beginning, were the more sane one. Do I have that right?”
I can go with that.
“Why not? You fucking wrote it,” said the skeleton, “like every other thing I ‘say’… but I suppose it’s too late for me to squawk about that. In for a penny, in for 26,000,000 dollars.”
Thank you for that opening to vent some gratuitous viciousness. You know, sometimes, once you’re pegged as vicious unfairly, and you’ve experienced it yourself enough, the impulse to have the last, mean word becomes irresistible.
“Oh, no,” said the skeleton, “I’m not fucking dealing with this right now.” He turned his head to the side to indicate his determination not to deal with any of this.
It’s not about you, dad.
“Oh, then, by all means, go ahead!” said the skeleton brightly.
Insane and sane are such porous and inexact categories. In a clinical sense I don’t think you were actually insane at all, or that I was ever close to being insane either.
“Well, the narrator of the Tell-tale heart felt the same way,” said the skeleton, “and you know how much good that did him when the detectives showed up. Very few insane people think they’re insane, that’s a common feature of insanity. What’s your point?”
My former buddy the writer’s terrible burden, the unspeakable secret that made him wild when it was betrayed, even with the tiniest hint. He’s affable, he’s salt of the earth, he’s hard working, he’s frugal, he believes everyone should pay their own way, that over-tipping is as bad as under-tipping and that you don’t count the tax when figuring the 15%.
“You really are a vicious bastard, aren’t you, for all the work you’ve done to remain mild,” said the skeleton, waiting with a smile for the truly vicious part.
Well, look, I’m trying to paint a detailed picture in very murky light here, dad. I have to use every tool I can think of to bring out the likeness– plus, like I said, there’s still bile in the back of my throat about my ungenerous writer friend and his one-way sensitivity. How do you portray another person’s inner life? You can only really see it in relation to others– your thoughts when you’re alone are unknowable. I need to show you in action as much as I can figure out how to do.
“Well, you lost me, but don’t get diverted from your vicious purpose here,” said the skeleton.
OK, so you have dinner with this writer once a year or so and he’s affable, a great story-teller, a raconteur, comme disent les grenouilles. Many of his stories involve the blue collar work he’s been doing for the last decade or two, after his lucrative freelance corporate writing gigs finally dried up.
He talks of his adventures as a low-paid case worker at an agency that helps adults who can’t manage their own affairs and are in danger of losing their homes, some truly crazy tales. He sometimes has a story about his days training to be an Emergency Services worker in an ambulance crew. He speaks with great pride of some of his writing students in the English-as-a -second language writers’ workshop he currently conducts at a community center. He’s always working, thinks it’s dreadful to have idle hands and too much time on them. I saw him turn pale when I told him all I was doing these days was writing.
“Well, he’s not unique in any of that. Most people live to work and work to live and many of their ready anecdotes are about things that happen at work. It’s where people meet other people, interact, etc. Not everyone sits inside doing unpaid typing about events inside their head all day every day, making ponderous internet pronouncements, talking on the phone once in a while. I mean, what is your fucking point?” said the skeleton, annoyed, among other things, at this delay in getting to the vicious part.
All true, here’s the rest. To anyone sitting at the dinner table, he is the most regular, normal, good guy you could want to have dinner with. He may mention the Superbowl he attended a few years back when his team, after a long drought, played somewhere down south. It was a great game, a historic and dramatic victory. He doesn’t mention how many thousands he paid for the ticket, or the trip to the game, flights and hotels being obscenely expensive in the host city where everyone wants to be for the big game. A huge outlay of cash was involved to sit in a seat at a madly popular sporting event. He makes minimum wage at the community center.
“You vicious fucking asshole!” I can hear his ex wife screaming, from the call center she works at. I am about to betray her too.
“Jesus Christ, Elie, this fucking story again? I thought you’re done with this fucking story. You keep promising you’re done with it,” said the skeleton. “Talk about being insane….”
Keep your shroud on, pops, I am getting close to my vicious yet salient point. His ex is furious because I should have assumed that what she told me was in strictest confidence because it’s something her ex husband wants nobody to know under any circumstances. This affable blue collar guy, you understand, it’s a terrible fucking secret.
“OK, so you’re pulling back the curtain on a case you say illustrates being insane, or something to that effect,” said the skeleton.
They had an amicable divorce with a mediator they both loved. The soon-t0-be ex wife wanted to open a bookstore in New Hampshire after the divorce, it had been a lifetime dream of this brilliant, book-loving, intermittently terribly depressed old friend of mine. They’d been married for fifteen or more years, still loved each other, but had decided it was time to split up and that she was going to move out of the city to pursue a lifelong dream. She was also going to write a novel, or collection of short stories, anyway, as she interacted with local book lovers by day.
“OK, none of this sounds insane in the least, or even particularly interesting,” said the skeleton.
No need to be surly so close to payday, dad. They worked everything out beautifully and both felt very good about the arrangement.
“OK, mazel tov for them, I’m very happy now. They all fucking lived happily ever after,” said the skeleton.
Yeah. The ex-wife got a lump sum payment of $75,000 which allowed her to open the bookstore and stock it with used books. When she told me how happy she was, I congratulated her, told her $75,000 sounded very generous.
“Oh, it is,” she said, “unless you consider the $26,000,000 still remaining in his trust fund.”
She might as well have asked me if I ‘d like her to cut my penis off. I could not have been more shocked. I knew the guy for more than twenty years, he never gave a hint. We split every check, he wished me the very best for my non-profit, but was one of only two friends who never contributed even $25 when I begged for donations.
“So what? Another rich asshole. Don’t you know they have another fucking set of rules they play by? What is the point of this fucking story? What is the point of any of your fucking stories?” the skeleton said this in a way that could be fairly described as a snarl.
Hard to answer that shortly. If I could tell you in a sentence now I suppose I wouldn’t need the fucking stories themselves.
I guess when one person spends a life in therapy because another person has convinced them they are insane, it’s a fair question which of the two is the truly mad one. You predicted that I’d spend years trying to undo the damage you were doing to me when I was a young kid. You were a regular Nostradamus on that one. You should be very proud that it took your daughter forty years to realize you had rigged the game like an ingenious mad man to ensure that your victims felt like perpetrators and that your prophecy came true. Must make you very proud, dad.
“It does not make me proud at all, as you know very well,” said the skeleton, “now do us both a big favor and get the fuck out of here.”