“Jesus Christ, Elie, let sleeping skeletons lie, would you?” said the skeleton of my father over his shoulder, annoyed again at a visit from his son on a chilly autumn day in the boneyard. “I can’t take another long, bitter anecdote about nothing and I don’t feel much like having words put between my jaws today either.”
Perfectly understandable, dad. You know, at this point, after a couple of days on too little sleep, I am cranky, feeling a little crazy too.
“‘A little crazy, too,‘ you say? Too? You mean, like me– a dead man trying to rest in peace whose fucking insane son won’t shut up and keeps putting imaginary words in his dead mouth? Is that the other crazy person you’re referring to in this, eh, conversation?” said the skeleton.
Point taken. I got distracted yesterday and we never really touched on the larger point I was trying to get to with you.
“Ah, the larger point we were going to discuss… You do realize…” said the skeleton.
Of course. Do you remember that one moment, during one of our countless fights in the kitchen, when you were struck almost dumb when I called you “weird”?
“No,” said the skeleton, “I remember that feeling the time you called me a cunt, but that was in the living room. I don’t remember you calling me weird. You called me weird?” the skeleton showed a trace of his original flushed reaction to being called weird.
“Weird?!” you said, in an almost-squawk, with the closest to mom’s smile of hurt on your face I’ve ever seen. You stood up, turned in an oddly chicken-like manner and said again “weird?” You had a very peculiar expression on your face, like I’d touched a nerve that both hurt and tickled. You were like a giant, incredulous bird, feathers ruffled, beak askew. “Weird?” you said again as you passed awkwardly behind me and out of the kitchen.
“Odd,” said the skeleton.
I get that it’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and start organizing this material into as coherent a narrative as I can. There is something neurotic, at best, about continuing to mine my memory when there is already a mountain of material to work with.
“You said it, Charlie, not me,” said the skeleton, channeling his cousin Eli.
It’s just been bothering me that I haven’t yet expressed very well the real genius of your technique.
“Are there no earplugs for a poor dead man?” called the skeleton mournfully.
(Look, it’s easy for you to be adorable now, everybody loves a talking skeleton.
“Why dignify a throwaway line that’s going to be lost in the rewrite anyway?” asked the skeleton rhetorically.)
Maybe every father has inherent persuasive powers over his children. I suppose that has to be true, at least initially. The father lays something out, the children have no reason to doubt him. That is probably the case. Yet, I think you had more than ordinary powers in that regard. You were able to opine quite convincingly about matters that did not bear much scrutiny. You had a certain Walter Cronkite-like believability, even when you were spouting complete bullshit.
“Well, at least my son hasn’t inherited any of that,” said the skeleton, doing his best to smirk.
You instilled in your daughter and me, along with values well worth valuing, stories about us that were completely, wildly, unexplainably, false and destructive.
“Yes, and I apologized abstractly about all that before I died, what’s your point?” said the skeleton testily.
I have no point. I’m painting a picture, trying to make it as detailed, nuanced, and lifelike as I can. This is all illusion, you understand, brush strokes on a two dimensional canvas doing their best to evoke a deep, living, three dimensional world. Our lives are a kind of illusion, these fleeting things we believe have some kind of permanence. We are each a ticking time bomb genetically programmed to explode. On a cellular level, every one of these amazing living machines of bone, nerve and muscle that are the vehicles for our consciousness, are born with the seeds of our demise already germinated. Everything alive that we look at, one day dead, every one of them gone, in the blink of an eye. The most wonderful paintings ever done only evoke this precious, dying thing in a way that gives a shudder of recognition, of wonder.
“Leave the poetry to your nephew, the boy of few words,” said the skeleton.
I am working my way to the bottom of it, that’s all I’m saying. I want to show what it feels like to be sitting at the kitchen table, at seven, eight, nine years old. Across from you is the father who is your first model of how to act.
He tells you gruffly, in connection to God only knows what, that it’s complete crap, the old cliche that the “army makes you a man.” You consider this as he explains, “the army never made anyone a man. If you’re not a man when you go in, you’re not going to be made into a man by the army.”
You listen to this as if it’s as serious a thought as his description of our moral duty to be humane to helpless animals. You have no way to discern one thing from the other when your father is telling it to you.
To a child, the parent sharing deep thoughts is a kind of oracle. You tend to believe them, why wouldn’t you? My sister told me recently that she was forty before she began realizing how much of what we heard was just the endless other-blaming anger of a man who should never have had children. She has also said “we ruined his life. If either of them had any chance of happiness before we came along, our arrival ended that.”
I have another take. It’s hard for me to give him a pass for being such an ogre of a father and I don’t think we have to share the blame for it. Pain does not give you the right to be a prick to a child. Sorry about that. My sister agrees 100% with this idea. Whatever happened to you, that’s your’s to deal with. Once you take it out on another person, particularly a tiny, trusting one — you lose any moral authority your pain might have given you.
“Well, again, very easily said in the rarefied air of your childless study, sir,” said the skeleton. “You have no idea what the pressure of being a father and provider puts on a person.”
I am focusing on how you practiced your art. Not every father has the particular genius you displayed. It is worth taking some trouble to set out as plainly and exactly as I can.
“When you and your mother got home from the hospital we put your crib on my side of the bed. I’d wake up and you’d be staring at me with those big, dark, accusing eyes,” my father always described his earliest memories of me. “You were, from the beginning, a very angry kid. You were just born that way, some babies are.”
It didn’t take me forty years to see the absurdity of this idea. I saw it at once and every time I heard it repeated and insisted on. I’d ask if he had any idea how ridiculous the notion of a newborn baby staring accusingly at his father was. How would a two week-old form the consciousness required for an accusation? “Oh, you absolutely did,” my father would reply. “No question.”
My mother would generally leap in, to back up my father’s claim. The next thing they’d cite was the irrefutable corroborating conclusion of a quack pediatrician who’d laughed to reassure the worried young parents that their beet red ten-week old with the tiny clenched fists was merely having an unbelievably precocious, and completely irrational, temper tantrum.
“They should never have had children,” my sister always says these days. “They had no business being parents.”
Personally, I’m glad that they had my sister and me. But my sister has a point.
As a kid I’d get mad when my parents refused to back down from their absurd and childish insistence that their son was born enraged, ‘born with a hard-on against the world’ was the phrase they both used. Yep, that baby hated the world so much, he wanted to fuck it.
Even as a young child, it was already impossible for me to believe they couldn’t entertain a single possible reason– outside of their bad luck to have been saddled with an irrationally angry, even vicious, baby– why their baby could have been unhappy enough to clench his fists, stiffen his body and cry inconsolably.
Could I have been crying because I was cold, mom? I asked. You’re always hot, and pregnant women are famously warmer than usual, with that little furnace they carry in their wombs, so you would have been very uncomfortable by June, and it was a warm spring the year I was born.
Is it impossible that while you were enjoying a blessedly delightful cool breeze your baby, skinny and fussy, was freezing in the stroller and you had no idea why he could possibly be crying, and clenching his fists, and turning red? And the longer he was cold, and the longer you didn’t feel his hands, or his ears, and see that, Jesus, the angry little bastard’s actually cold, the more righteously angry anybody unable to otherwise express that he needed something he couldn’t get for himself would have become?
“Hah,” said the skeleton,”you see, even now you’re getting angry just thinking about it.”
You got the wrong ah-ha! out of that ah-ha! moment, dad. You and mom were raised by brutal mothers who broke up your first love affairs and shoved all kinds of disgusting things down your throat.
“You leave our mothers out of this!” screamed the skeleton. “No, I’m kidding. Look, this is a reasonable point. I’m dead, I’ve got no skeletal dog in this fight any more. What you’re saying is true, much as I hate to admit it.
“I lived my whole life afraid and angry and my high functioning intellect, complete with top shelf powers of expression and argumentation, was the survival mechanism I had to work with. You use what you have to defend yourself. What I had was a high functioning intellect. That’s the whole tragedy of this fucking world, Elie– the misuse of high functioning intellects. Geniuses of persuasion selling misery and mass death like it was a magic cure.
“You remember that line from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men? He talks about how dumb guys are frequently nice, but how smart fellows are more often than not pricks? You can find the exact quote on-line, have Jeeves fetch it for you, but the eternal truth of that has an intuitive rightness to it.
Here you go. George is telling Slim about how his simpleton sidekick Lennie won’t ever fight back or be mad at George no matter what terrible thing George does to him. Slim expresses disbelief that Lennie never gets angry, never? And George says:
No, by God! I tell you what made me stop playing jokes. One day a bunch of guys was standin’ aroun’ up on the Sacramento River. I was feelin’ pretty smart. I turns to Lennie and I says, “Jump in.”
SLIM. What happened?
GEORGE. He jumps. Couldn’t swim a stroke. He damn near drowned. And he was so nice to me for pullin’ him out. Clean forgot I tole him to jump in. Well, I ain’t done nothin’ like that no more. Makes me kinda sick tellin’ about it.
SLIM. He’s a nice fella. A guy don’t need no sense to be a nice fella. Seems to be sometimes it’s jest the other way round. Take a real smart guy, he ain’t hardly ever a nice fella.
“Yop, don’t take great powers of intellect to be a nice person, only decency. Which, as you know, is implanted by people treating you decently and kindly when you are weak, and needy. What was done to me, and what I did to you and your sister, was the opposite.
“‘Oh, you need something from me, you needy little fuck? I’ll show you need!’ and then, in my mother’s case, may she rest in peace, a whip across my little face. In your case, an argument so insane nobody with any sense could hear it applied to him without getting mad. When you react indignantly, there’s the proof that you are an irremediably angry, indignant little fuck.
“Look, I get it. That’s why your writer buddy’s recent display of his asshole was so distasteful to you. He encouraged your progress with this book, then ignored you, then pretended he hadn’t, then blamed you for being a needy pussy by not just continuing to follow up with him when you never heard back. I understand, and no-one wants to hear anything more about that particular brilliant jackass, but there is a connection there worth making.
“You had a moment in your chat with Howie’s widow the other night when you described my strategic use of silence as turning silence by way of response into kryptonite for you. That was apt. The favorite weapons our loved ones used against us become like kryptonite, act on us with disproportionate devastation. You’re certainly not alone in being hurt by a nonresponse, most people are, but you’re more than averagely sensitized to it wounding you deeply.
“You’d need something from me and express it, and I’d just … make it disappear. You know, a little dab of silence’ll do ya. So you’d ask again, now you’d be pestering me and your tone would take on a more desperate edge. I’d take a breath, give you a little more silence. Then, if you insisted on not taking the rather hurtful hint, and asked again with any trace of a whine, you were being a whining little pain in the ass, and I’d note that, and then you’d get mad and you’d become an angry fucking little pain in the fucking ass. Then you’d say “fuck you, too, you’re a fucking pain in the ass” and mom would jump in and start screaming at how you had no respect for your parents.
“Kind of funny when you picture the enraged little kid squeakily telling his parents to go fuck themselves, but not really ‘ha ha’ funny or any kind of laugh riot. Not that funny at all, really.” The skeleton absently scratched the side of his jaw, at a loss for anything else to do.
Well, dad, as Clint Eastwood says to his actors when they’ve done a take he’s satisfied with “… that’s enough of that, boys….”