“Uh, Elie,” said the skeleton of my father, “I don’t mean to put any pressure on you, or speak out of turn, being long dead and all, but…are you even thinking of getting back to work on the book about me you’re 760 pages into? Or 860 or whatever that ridiculous number of pages is now?”
Yeah, I’ve just been gettin’ ready to do that, as the kids in Harlem used to say, echoing that old overseer-placating slave meme, and I’ve been meaning to write something here. I realized the other day that I need to start from a place I haven’t even seriously considered– putting myself directly in your situation. I have never been poor, not for a day. I haven’t made any money in my life, I don’t live a particularly lavish life on my subsistence income, but I’ve never been hungry, never been fearful about where I was going to sleep, never been mocked because I was a poor boy by kids whose families had a little more. Your dire poverty until you went into the army is not something to gloss over as I discuss your obsession with making a living, being a tireless, unappreciated, angry breadwinner and all the rest of it.
“Well, you hit something there, Elie, the utter thanklessness of my life. I started out behind the eight ball and you never really recover from that. I think you and your sister began to understand that when you were much older, but as kids you were pretty much complete pricks. I was raising privileged versions of the kids who used to give me shit when I came in with those Relief glasses, the wireframe badges of extreme poverty. Then, I finally have my own house, and a car, and suddenly there are two pricks with my own DNA persecuting me over their steak dinner every night, in that old familiar way.” The skeleton looked off toward the Hudson River, nearby but invisible from his grave.
“At the same time, I know it was fair play on your part. I was a total prick to you guys. I understood only as I was dying that I had a choice, choices, all along that I didn’t even consider. I always felt I had to hold my rage in check, always had to be right, always in control. I was emotionally out of control, what kind of man calls his beautiful little girl an empty-headed vain person with no character? The things I called you are equally hard to justify. Your mother and sister both have phobias about snakes, I don’t particularly like them, you have never held one. What kind of father calls his son a fucking cobra and a rattlesnake?”
Well, I always took it in the spirit it was given, as you recall. I was like some of the lower achieving black kids who were bused into my elementary school, after a long and ugly fight against it, ten years after Brown v. Bd supposedly ended segregation. If they were going to be treated like animals, by teachers like the racist Harriet Bluming, who I had in fifth grade and even then recognized as a deeply disturbed individual, then, fuck it, I’m going to act like an animal. You’re scared of rattle snakes? Let me give my tail a little shake for you, you like a little cha-cha rhythm?
“Well, you make light of it, and I guess that’s the only way to do it, but paint the picture however you like, there’s only so much lipstick you can put on that particular pig,” the skeleton looked off into the distance again. “Why some pigs wear so much lipstick, I’ll never know.”
OK, listen, dad, I have to get up and stretch, get down to Sekhnet’s. I’m having cramps in both my legs today. In fact pains in my legs, and muscle spasms, woke me at around 6 a.m., which really sucked. I suppose I’m being welcomed to old age. Or maybe, undiagnosed, like you were, I’m suffering from something more ominous than the chronic kidney shit they’ve discovered so far. These doctors, as you know, only see what their particular lens reveals. As for the rest, go sue another specialist you should have consulted if you didn’t want to wind up in the ER, diagnosed six days before your death.
“OK, calm down, calm down. We’ll take this up next time. Or rather, you will. Go do what I should have done– stretch, relax, maybe go ride your bike a little. We all have to go sometime, but I’m proud of what you’re trying to do before you go. Just wanted to tell you that.”
That’s good to hear, even if I have to have you say it myself.