You sell yourself, not what you’re selling: to all the salesmen who ever worked for him, including, for one dreadful, interminable summer, me, my father promulgated that bit of advice. “The products are pretty much the same,” he’d say. “Get close to the buyers, get them to like you and trust you, and they’ll buy anything you want them to.” Over the years, I heard from different sources that he was considered one of the best salesmen in the country, and he was quite aware of it. One evening when I was teaching at a college in another state and he and my mother came to visit us, they spoke at length about their lives. I don’t know what brought about so much intimate revelation from them; it had never happened before and never would again. Maybe it was my having a position at what they considered a prestigious place, maybe we’d drunk more wine than usual, but they began to tell us how things had been for them when they were young and poor, which was a story I already knew, but then they began to talk, too, about the years when my father first started to do very well, at the end of the war, which I hadn’t heard about until then. Before the war, my father had worked for a large corporation, and after those hard years in which he hadn’t earned enough to live on, he became a star salesman, meeting and then doubling his quota every year. Then the company took him off commission, probably because he’d started to make too much money. He was indignant, quit, and so was out on his own. He told us a few of the things he’d done; he’d started an answering service, then some other little businesses, until finally he decided to go back into sales, and opened his first office. When the war ended, he said, I had a lot of ways to go; I could have sold real estate if I’d wanted to, or cars, or even airplanes, but I chose carbon paper. Why carbon paper? I asked. Because it was the most competitive business I could think of, he answered. Then why that? Because I knew I was good, he said.

I was taken aback. It was so out of my ken, almost inconceivable in those days for me to think of my own abilities with such brash confidence. But my father told us about his decision with as much simple factuality as he said he felt at the time. Because I knew I was good.

Still, his business didn’t always go well. There were ups and downs, printing jobs botched, good customers lost; it must have been very wearing. Once, my father was taking my wife and me to the airport and had someone else in the car he was going to drop off too, an executive from a company that manufactured machines my father sold. The person was talking to me about what an amazing salesman my father was, how he’d made the biggest sale in the history of the business, four hundred machines at one time, to an insurance company. The man didn’t know, as I did, that the sale wasn’t a sale and that the whole affair was a disaster. My father had realized sometime before that the largest profit was made not on the machines he sold—he’d long ago expanded his operations from carbon paper to form-printing to business machines—though selling them required the greatest effort and expense. The real money was in the supplies customers had to buy to use them; he decided he might as well give the machines away, so he did. He offered the insurance company the four hundred machines for nothing, on condition that they’d contract to buy all their supplies from him, and they took him up on it. I think, in truth, it was like the cars he gave away: he was pleased by the effect the deal would have as much as by the potential profit.

What happened, though, was that there was a fire in a branch office of the insurance company, and it turned out that though it hadn’t been a factor, one of the materials the machines used was flammable, which violated a fire ordinance, and the machines were returned. So my father, who’d borrowed a lot of money to pay for the machines, had, as they say in that world, to eat them. All the time this fool was talking about my father’s great salesmanship, my father was wondering how to get rid of four hundred used machines, and how to pay off the bank he’d borrowed from to buy them, but you’d never have known any of that. He laughed with the other man, chatted with us; it was, really, as though he had eaten his disappointment and his discouragement: he was as cool and composed as someone actually relishing his profit.

I had to admire him that day, although my admiration certainly was nothing new. In childhood, I’d esteemed him with an almost primitive fervor. I would tell my friends much too often what a great athlete he’d been, how physically powerful he was, how successful. My veneration was absolute and unquestioning, at least during those years before … before what? Before he began to act more like a boss than a father, before the conflict began between us which neither of us would ever really understand? Before whatever it was, he glowed for me, he was fire and air.

You sell yourself. There are almost too many Faustian overtones in that phrase. To give yourself to the devils of commerce: what would the price you’d have to pay finally be? When I saw my father’s imperturbability with the machine-company person, when I realized how he could control himself so completely so as not to lose face, I admired him again, but I had an inkling then of what it really costs to sell yourself, how you can end up toughened like scar tissue, and weary, so weary, of everyone you have to deal with, and, possibly, of yourself as well.

A rather formal photograph of my father hung on the wall of the conference room of his main sales office; he’d had it taken himself, perhaps because in the last years of his life he was so seldom there. After his death, with my brother running the business, the photo began to appear on brochures and advertisements; it was meant to embody the long history and presumed reliability of the firm. As the years passed, it must have been reproduced from other reproductions, so that over time my father’s features became more and more schematic, until, by the time the business was sold a dozen years after his death, it didn’t look like a photograph of him at all but like a blotchy print of some paradigmatically forceful and trustworthy youngish executive. I found the image disturbing the last time I saw it; I wondered whether it would interfere with my father’s features in my mind, but it didn’t—I can still call his image up whenever I want to, with whatever expression I want him to have.

I usually like to remember him smiling: he had one particular smile that during the years of animosity between us, and then later, when he was in his depressions about being ill, I rarely saw—broad, unrestrained, entirely frank. When he’d smile like that, you’d notice as you wouldn’t otherwise that there was a space between his front teeth, a gap that acted as a sort of stress mark, emphasizing his expression.

When he was in an especially expansive mood, for an hour, or an evening, and he’d smile that way, there seemed no qualification to how he’d respond to you, no limit to how ready he was to welcome you into his warmth. Perhaps I’ve made him sound as though he was always as dour as he was complex, but that wasn’t the case; he could be thoroughly charming. Most people found him quite amiable, and with most people he was. He had many friends, all of whom thought highly of him, and there were many people he barely knew, neighbors, merchants, people to whom he’d hardly said more than hello, who spoke fondly of him: when he died, my mother received a number of condolence letters from people she’d never met.

When he was in that benign mood, his pleasure was wonderfully infectious; it was remarkable how he attracted people, how he could make them feel that something uncommon was happening to them when they were in his company. Even his children, even his son; even if you were still scraped raw by whatever abrasion he’d last inflicted on you, you’d feel both relief and an odd sense of fulfillment at being allowed to participate in his good spirits.

When he decided—no one could ever say why he would or wouldn’t—to let his kinder nature be revealed, even his physical presence became welcoming. His ordinarily prodigious and forbidding heft would subtly alter so that his volume now would include you, incorporate and enlarge you. No wonder the rabbi would call him a giant, and no wonder humans are so taken with giants, with how they can induce awe and a sense of shared power in us. No wonder, too, that we’re so prone to look for the giant’s weakness, so he can be diminished and brought down.

One Sunday—I don’t remember how old I was—we went, just he and I, to a park where people came to watch and feed a small herd of deer caged in a paddock. I was wonderfully pleased to be out alone with him, but I could see he was preoccupied, so I left him and wandered farther down along the fence. I was poking my fingers through the wire, trying to get a fawn to lick my fingers, when I heard a man say to someone with him, “They’re always dumb when they’re that big.” I knew they had to be talking about my father; I looked toward him and saw him standing where I’d left him, still in whatever train of thought had captured him, and, indeed, he did look if not stupid then unalert, unaware. His mouth was a little too open, his gaze too fixed. I knew he was surely thinking about business, but I was furious and humiliated by what the man said and I went over to my father and told him I wanted to go home. I didn’t really, but I wanted him to stop looking the way he did, and I wanted those men to see the expensive car he drove; I wanted to prove to them that he was hardly stupid, that he was richer than they were, and so had to be smarter.

That’s what I thought then: I know now that what was most important for me was to expunge from my own consciousness the least potential truth those words might have had: they hinted at such an unthinkable proposition, largeness and dullness, rather than tall-ness, therefore uniqueness, even possibly, probably, nobility. I’m tall myself, so is my brother, though neither of us is as tall as my father was, and it was always assumed in our family, and for a long time I believed it, that being tall was virtuous in itself, no matter what else you might be or do: it wasn’t until I was well into middle age that I realized how preposterous that conceit was.

But I think my father never stopped thinking it. One evening, when he and my brother and I were in a restaurant, and a friend of my father’s approached our table, a man of ordinary height, my father whispered, “Get up,” and the three of us stood all at the same time, dwarfing the person. Though his friend didn’t find the joke all that funny, my father laughed with delight. My father’s laughter when he was pleased to be where he was, doing what he was doing, carried with it an extraordinary sense of approbation. If she was there, my mother would visibly come into herself, her smile would brighten and her gladness would be such that even if there were only four or five of us, she would act as though we were having a party; though she might not have a new dress, a new hairdo, new perfume, she’d still be that joyful. Even during the very hardest years with my father, if his benign mood took him, you’d leave their company feeling as though you’d been celebrating something, perhaps just the fine fortune of having all been together. And you’d never think what had been celebrated was my father’s not being in his other humor, his other mode of connection, when his darkness or his anger determined the ambiance of your meeting. Even when he was feeling good, though, when he became tired, or if he felt what was going on had lasted too long, there would be a sudden slackening in him that you could sense even in his body: he’d seem to be looking at you from lower in the space he occupied than he had been; that gap in his teeth, the stress mark that italicized his good spirits would be concealed again. All at once, when you said something you meant to be amusing, he’d be looking at you with a somber cynicism, as though he didn’t understand not only how you could say something so foolish, but how you could even think of inflicting your foolishness on him. “Let’s go,” he would say abruptly to my mother if we were out, or, if we were at their house, he’d say to me, “It’s late, you better get going.” We’d know then that our audience with that agreeable part of him had come to an end, and so, carefully, warily, hardly daring to look back, we’d leave.

Is it disappointment one experiences at such moments, during such an after-climax, or shame or resentment, as though you’d been gulled, as though you’d been had? Either way, disappointment, anger, shame, you’d know that the next time with him might work out well, and you’d be thankful for the possibility that you might be with him again when he was at his best, affectionate, charming, engaging, embracing.

“I’m not supposed to say that, am I?” my father said to me one Thanksgiving Day, as we were watching a football game on television, and, commenting on a spoiled play, he made some appallingly racist remark about a black player, then about black people in general.

“No, you’re not,” I answered, and, since it was a holiday and I wasn’t in a mood to argue, I let the subject drop. I’ve wondered, though, what happened to change my father’s attitude toward race so much; he’d instilled a decidedly liberal outlook in me. I remember when I was an adolescent he and I once saw a black man driving a big new car, the image of which in those days was a cliché supposedly demonstrating black people’s lack of reasonable values: it was assumed a black man must be very poor, so a costly car implied a misuse of presumably limited resources. Maybe I said something to that effect, something I’d have picked up from a friend, and my father responded by saying, “You have to understand, Negroes don’t have anything else to spend money on: they can’t buy decent houses, they can’t go to good restaurants, and most of them can’t get into college; what else is a Negro who makes some money supposed to do with it?” I felt abashed and took very much to heart not so much that particular observation, though I found it entirely convincing, but rather the dialectic implied in what my father said: it was something he’d have to have considered carefully to have arrived at a point of view which in those days was unusual among the people he knew.

When, so much later, he made that crude, bigoted observation, he must have realized that I’d be the dialectician this time, and that I’d be critical of him. So though he didn’t say he was sorry—I knew not to expect that—he did at least qualify his words.

But what had happened to change him so much? Downtown, where he’d had his office for so long, had deteriorated hopelessly by then, the city government was corrupt, as it had been for decades, the city was populated almost entirely by poor blacks and Hispanics, and of course there was the crime that goes along with poverty. In the last years that my father still had his office there, a kind of cage had to be built in the storeroom because so many supplies were being stolen by his own employees. The building that housed his office then wasn’t quite an island amid devastation the way many buildings there are now, but it must have been a disagreeable trek for him to drive into the failing city. Later he moved the business out to the suburbs, as many others did, but I think he resented being forced to: he must have felt as though he’d been robbed of the place he knew so well—he’d covered every one of the city’s commercial streets on foot during those years he was first setting up his business and was his only salesman. Still, that didn’t account for such a radical change of attitude, and I remember I used to think that it had to have been something personal that would have inspired him with so much ill feeling toward blacks. I imagined that perhaps a black man had humiliated him: I pictured a powerful young tough purposefully bumping into him, just because he was so big, and then when my father challenged him, the other would have faced him down and mocked him. I didn’t have any actual reason to think that; though I did hear stories of it happening to some people, it was more likely that I wished my father for once would have to back away from someone, dephysicalize himself, submit.

Maybe, though, he began to distrust and to speak badly of black people after his employee, the ex-chauffeur with whom he’d been such chums, had betrayed him by taking him to court. But whatever it was that had brought about the change, I was chagrined by it, and I was relieved now that at least he’d responded to my discomfort; his doing so implied if not any renewed social rectitude in him then at least a sensitivity to my feelings. Later, though, despite the reconciliation we’d effected about almost everything else, he continued to make the same sort of ridiculous racist comments, and every time I’d have to face that his wanting to hurt my feelings was a conscious part of what he said.

Sometimes I’ve thought that perhaps my father did things like that with me because I’d come to stand for attitudes he’d once admired in himself, but didn’t believe in anymore; that might explain some of the apparently random animus with which he’d try to offend me. He knew how intensely I felt about racial inequality, how much of my moral vision was informed by the issue. It occurs to me that he might have resented not so much my political or moral vision as the fact that I had such strong, enduring feelings about the question at all, and about much else he simply didn’t trouble himself about anymore, and perhaps that made him uncomfortable. How much of our apparently intimate disagreements might have to do with unspoken conflicts like that; with our realizing that a consciousness with which we’re connected is taken up with matters that don’t involve us, so we feel abandoned, bereft, and because nothing is worse than indifference, not even pain, to allay our feeling of being slighted or belittled, we pounce and attack.

I’ve often wondered about my father’s soul, about the cosmos in which he dwelt. What were the ultimate grounds of his beliefs, of his day-to-day confrontations with existence? What meaning did life have for him? Did he believe in a real God? How much had being a Jew in the century of Jewish horror affected him? We never spoke about that, or never seriously: surely it would have had to affect him to realize that it was the purest chance that his and my mother’s grandparents had left Poland and Russia when they did, and so it was just as much a chance that he was still alive at all. If he felt anything like that, though, he kept it to himself, as most Jews of his generation did.

But surely he was “religious”: when his own father died, he went to synagogue every morning for a year to say Kaddish, no matter where he was, and then he kept going, so that for the last twenty years or so of his life he presumably prayed every day. But of what did his prayer consist? During his last days, when all he wanted was to have his partial life over with, the word “God” never came up, just as the word “death” didn’t later with my mother. And yet if he could have, I know my father would have kept going to synagogue right to the end. He especially loved the more Orthodox shuls, where old men wrapped in their prayer shawls muttered and swayed. My father wore a tallis, too, and a yarmulke, and read Hebrew quite well, but I still wonder: did he have a God?

Perhaps he had to, but if so, I don’t believe he found any consolation in his belief. So much of his intellectual and emotional structure had to do with his determination, his will; and the way the will works, by a constant process of assessment, correction, and redirection, then action and self-chastisement if that action isn’t successful, implies a turn against the self, the necessity constantly to confront self and compel it to a higher state. Yet what if someone’s conception of that higher state becomes detached from any realistic vision of the self’s capacities? What, in other words, if the demands of the will outstrip its means? What consoles then?

Finally my father seemed to believe that he’d constructed himself as an instrument of his own resolve; maybe that’s what happens to people who succeed in the world by what they interpret as force of character. But the self is more complex and more vulnerable than that; the self my father made was overwhelmed in the end by the enormity of his unacknowledged and perhaps unfelt longings, and by the shadowings of an ennui he never understood.

His God in those last, hard years I imagine as the pure function of his struggle with himself, which must be what gods most often are. And yet it seems to me that the only means by which my father would seem to have been able to approach his God was by yet another act of will, or by a suppression of his will by itself: you can’t will a God into your presence, such a God would be unworthy of you; what’s left is to find a way to have God disclose Himself to you by redefining yourself, by creating a self whose resolve would be subservient to some other purpose, a self that won’t have to be so relentlessly muscular, so flexed before life and the cosmos.

About the Author

C.K. Williams

C.K. Williams’ “Flesh and Blood” (1987) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry; it and “The Vigil” (1997) were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. “Repair” (1999) was nominated for the National Book Award.

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