Two excerpts from Moritz Thomsen’s memoir about his involvement with two outrageous catastrophes—World War II and his father—”the two big wars in my life”—from which he was never able to disengage.
Every so often, when the chickens molted, grew lazy, and lost interest in laying eggs, my father sold them as fryers and replaced them one house at a time with day-old chicks from a hatchery. One Sunday afternoon, a month after new chickens had been delivered to the nearest of the hen houses, someone—my father or his employee—failed to close the door tightly, and Missy with her long nose pushed it open and found herself in paradise. I don’t know how long it took but she was efficient and sometime later when my father went into the hen house to admire his babies he found that they had all been killed—5,000 dead chickens scattered through the litter, proud Missy wagging her tail to greet him.
Terrible screaming, bad words that in those days people didn’t use, terrible howling of a terrified dog floated up to us from the bottom land. I had never heard my father yell quite so loudly; I raced down the hall and burst into my stepmother’s bedroom. “What’s wrong? What’s happening?” I yelled. My stepmother stood in an open window staring down toward the screams and curses and the wailing dog. Her face was wild and she did not speak, although her lips were moving as though she were praying. The hen house was hidden by trees but after a time my father appeared, walking backward and dragging the dog by her hind feet. When she tried to nip or lick his hands he clubbed her flat. Near a barbed wired fence he took a short loose roll of wire and twisted one end of it around the dog’s head; then he wrapped her body to the fence so that she stood upright but immobilized. He disappeared but returned immediately with the bodies of a dozen dead chickens, and he strung these around the dog’s neck, a necklace of dead birds, all the time yelling and kicking at the howling dog. “What’s happened is Missy’s killed some chickens,” I said. “So why doesn’t he just kill Missy?” I started to cry. My stepmother was saying something, the same words over and over, and I can’t remember now if she said “the old sea bastard” or “the old sea slug,” only that she sounded out of her head but that her words, like church ritual, were insanely appropriate.
My father went to the barn finally; the dog, fastened to the fence as though she had been nailed there, did not move or cry until my father appeared with the shotgun, and the dog, covered with mud, feathers, blood, and her own shit, began to howl. And my father, wanting to kill her slowly, I suppose, steadily cursing, stood 10 yards or so away and fired three times into the shuddering carcass.
The pigeons exploded out of their nests in the barn’s roof and circled in a small panic below a darkening sky around the dead dog. My father stood there without moving for a very long time.
One morning in March of 1945,I turned and walked down the drive toward my father’s house to stand before him after a two-year absence with my wings and bars and ribbons. I was in the last week of a 30-day leave. If I was no longer particularly proud of the silken and pewter and tin-plated wings and ribbons, having seen them distributed by the truckload, I knew my father, a civilian subjugated by war propaganda, would be dazzled and awestruck. My quest for approval that morning certainly contained elements of a neurotic dependence that long before 1945, when I was 29, I should have outgrown. But it was a dependence so corrupt that in all my life I never completely conquered it, based as it was not on love or filial respect, but on my father’s money. And so while I needed my father’s admiration, more importantly, I wanted to soften him up to keep the promise he had made me on the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor—that after the war he would help me buy 300 white-faced cows and the winter and summer pastures to run them on. If he would have been unable at the beginning of the war to help me in such a generous way, by its end he had, he claimed, more than made back the million dollars he had lost in the early 1930s when the stock market collapsed and so many of his business friends began falling from office windows.
There was another selfish reason for rny visit: Before going overseas I had left a little red Dodge pickup truck in my father’s care. Now due to report back in a few days to a Texas air base, I looked forward to the freedom and loneliness of driving across the Western deserts through the memories of my youth.
Mainly, of course, I hoped that my return, which he might consider as miraculous as a rising up from the dead, and that my ribbons with their blatant and dishonest reference to my courage under fire, would disorient and weaken him and impel him to act toward me in a way that was foreign to his nature—with generosity. Looking back then (and now) I couldn’t and can’t remember much of anything I had ever done to make him proud of me, and in fact, couldn’t remember a dozen times after the age of 13, say, when he had even seemed happy to have me around. One night at the dinner table when I was 10 or thereabouts he had said absolutely gratuitously, “Some day someone is going to give you a million dollars for that smile.” It was like being given a $5 bill for no reason, and I treasured that remark, and, since I still remember it, probably still do. I think it was the only loving remark he ever made to me.
It has been more than 42 years since that morning when I came back from the war, and I no longer remember the day in any precise detail. If I had understood what happened, if I could have said to myself,This is the funniest thing that has ever happened to me in my life, or This is the ugliest thing I have ever seen, then, by characterizing the action I might have felt, perhaps falsely, that I understood it. But I didn’t understand it, and 42 years later still don’t understand it, at least not well enough to worry out the proper voice, the tone appropriate to the telling of this story.
At 6 o’clock my father yelled up the back steps to my room where I was sitting on the bed in a state of anger. He told me he was mixing me a drink and that dinner was almost ready.
I had spent the morning and most of the afternoon with him driving around the farm, mailing off some packages of blueberry jam that he cooked and advertised in House Beautiful, inspecting the crazy little factory he had built out of junk for canning blueberries, admiring the ton of sugar he had lied out of the war board, plus a small pile of rationed tires, plus ration books for God knows how many gallons of gasoline. He showed me the site of last year’s Victory garden where everything he had planted with a small group of friends from the city (1 was amazed to find out he had friends) grew insanely out of control like a science-fiction story of pure horror; his squash were heavier than sacks of wheat and required a crew of men to load them onto trucks; his rows of spinach grew into small trees like windbreaks; and from a dozen tomato plants he harvested a crop that had to be measured in tons. His four or five acres of blueberries were planted on bottom land, pure peat, so rich in organic material that a chunk of it, tossed in water, would float. The war, looked at coolly, had been wonderful and something he could turn to his own advantage; he had seen it as a dirty plot of Roosevelt’s to cornmu~ nize the world and, since it was corrupt, his duty had been to circumvent the war’s restrictions and refuse to become involved in the sacrifice of his little pleasures.
He was rich again. He had built apartment houses near the naval air station at Sand Point, 60 units, and hadn’t had a vacancy for years. He was building more apartments and talking to a wrecking firm about the millions that could be made buying up Army and Navy installations when the war was over.
He told me about a particular day just a few months past when his wife had started ringing the emergency iron triangle summoning him home from the cannery, and how, when he had driven up expecting something awful—some news from the Air Force, perhaps—she met him in the drive, grinning, and said, “Pardon my French, precious, but the son of a bitch is dead.” (This, I realized later, would not necessarily have ruled out the arrival of that telegram from the Air Force.) “And now,” she went on, “that crooked crony of Pendergast, that failed necktie salesman is going to be president.’’They had called their friends and invited them all to a party; they were good loyal Americans, good decent Republicans who would soon have a martyr, young John Birch, to rally around; and all night long they danced and drank and celebrated that death they had waited for so long, all of them carried away with joy.
But it hadn’t all been wonderful; he had suffered too. He told me about locking himself by mistake in the basement quick-freeze room he had had built and that he had filled with meat—beef steaks and pork sausage, a year’s supply all cut up and packaged. The room was kept at some extreme of freezing temperature, 20 or 30 degrees below zero, and he had been trapped down there for hours, screaming for help, cursing his stupid wife, and battering at the door—running against it with his shoulder, not feeling the cold at all but steaming with sweat as he ran at the door again and again through the late afternoon and early evening until, though it was a foot thick and heavily built, he knocked the door off its hinges and more dead than alive, sobbing and bleeding, crawled up into the kitchen on his hands and knees. Being wartime, he constructed his story as a war story. A newspaper reporter had written up the experience, not as my father might have wished—his semi-heroic victory over death—but as a joke, the first sentence of his article reading, “Charles Thomsen, Seattle businessman, may be the only person in the world who knows if, when you close the refrigerator door, the light goes off.”
“Well,” I asked, “does it?” But the question may have struck him as flippant. I don’t believe he answered me.
That all-day conversation had been a typical family production, a monologue that I had allowed him to dominate and direct, not only because he was the top banana but because, wanting things from him and thinking I knew how to manage him, I was waiting for the proper psychological moment to strike. Besides, he had scarcely mentioned the war, and certainly not with curiosity; a relief because I had nothing to say about the war. All day I had been looking surreptitiously in his warehouses and garages for my truck, without luck. I had said nothing, however. Now, as I sat in my room and he called up to me and I found myself trembling with outrage, I realized that the moment had come; a couple of very suspicious things had come to my attention.
About noontime, while my father made sandwiches in the kitchen and told me how he had eaten dog food by mistake out of the refrigerator for a week and, in fact, enjoyed its honest meaty flavor, I had idly opened a drawer by the kitchen table directly under a large banner that hung in the window—a nylon or rayon five-and-10-cent store purchase with a single blue star in a white field announcing to the public that a family member was serving in the armed forces. What I had found in the drawer, roUed up but instantly identifiable, was part two of the blue-starred announcement in the window, another almost identical banner differ ing only in the star’s color, now gold. A gold star in your window was a real feather in your cap; it announced to the public that your son (or your brother, husband, uncle—you name it) was dead.
The sight of the banner embarrassed me; it was a violation of my father’s privacy and,just as years before I had shuddered upon opening a drawer in my father’s dressing room to discover a loose pile of condoms scattered among his pill bottles, I shuddered now. Buying that gold star while I was still alive struck me as grossly sentimental and in extremely bad taste.¯W¯ouldn’t it have been more fitting if he had waited?
Late in the afternoon my father went to his room to lie down for a half hour before dinner. He suggested I do the same. And so it was past 5 when I carried my musette bag upstairs and went into my bedroom for the first time. It seemed unchanged at first, as though it had been no more than a day or two since I had left, and not two years. Then I went to the clothes closet and slid its door back on its rollers to reveal a hundred empty coat hangers, and alone in this emptiness a single black suit I had worn on formal occasions and perhaps no more than a half dozen times—the tails now eaten through in a hundred places by moths; holes as big as nickels; $10 in nickels’ worth of holes. Everything else had vanished: suits, tweed jackets, flannel shirts, skis and ski pants, golf clubs, tennis rackets— everything. I walked down the hall and went through the closets there, into the guest room with its closet, and into the closet of my sister’s bedroom, unused for years. In the hall closet where my father changed his farm clothes I found one pair of pants that were mine; they were made of heavy material, were cuffless, and had enormous pockets, and I had bought them for deer and elk hunting in those foolish days when ï thought it was fun to shoot at animals.
One pair of pants. That was all that was left of me, the pants and the star in the window which apparently was the wrong color. They wouldn’t have put my things in the attic, but I went looking anyway, opening trunks, old dresser drawers, a row of suitcases. Nothing.
And now my father called to me to come and have a drink with him, and I went down through the kitchen where my stepmother was doing something at the stove and through the pantry and into the little sitting room that they used now instead of the living room and—my God, how can I have forgotten to put his dog, Missy, into the center of this memorable homecoming, Missy, the creature he loved most in the world? A large purebred collie with a nose as long and thin as an anteater’s, little rheumy eyes set very close together, and in repose, which was 90 percent of the time, as shapeless as the swept up pile of Hair around a busy barber’s chair, and just about as intelligent and as appealing. She was a dog driven insane by baby talk, close confinement, and the loss of all usefulness. Just as people who live emotionally derivative lives will grow to resemble their pets, in the same way the pets enslaved by eccentrics will become as crazy as their masters. This mountain of black hair called Missy, in May of 1945, was one offìve dogs that lived in the house from 1927 until 1969: five identical collies, all named Missy, all of them driven insane, and all but the first one (who had been sadistically murdered) extravagantly loved and buried when they died at7or8 years of age beneath bronze plaques in a neat row like a military cemetery at the edge of the rose garden—Missy Two, Three, Four, Five.
One of those interchangeable creatures was lying at my father’s feet as I entered the room. “Your drink,” my father said, pointing to it on a coffee table by the couch. “Skoal.”
“Cheers,” I said. It was very strong and brutal, a cheap whiskey badly disguised with sugar and angostura bitters and loaded with memories of this house. “Good,” I said. I believe that for the last 50 years of my father’s life, until he was no longer able to get out of bed, he drank one of these explosive black draughts every evening except when he was upset or planning to be, and then he drank two and very occasionally three. Three old-fashioneds produced a temporary but violent insanity.
The evening paper lay before him on a footstool and he bent over it, glancing at the headlines and burying one hand in Missy’s thick coat. “I heard you up in the attic,” he said. “Looking for something, need a suitcase or something?”
“Not something; I’m looking for everything. Everything’s gone out of my room, all my clothes, shoes, shirts, the tweed jackets, my ski clothes. Did you put them someplace?”
“I haven’t touched your things,” my father said. He bent closer to the dog. “Yeah, the sweet Missy, oh the sweet dog “
“Skis, guns, tennis rackets, fly rods.” I waited for some kind of an answer and waiting, drank. “It’s a very strange feeling to come back to a room stripped of all the things that prove you exist. Like being erased, like being scissored out of a family photo. All I found were those pants I bought when I went elk hunting; they were in your closet.”
“Ah yes, I did take those. Wonderful pants for the farm, great for the cold weather.You don’t begrudge me the pants, do you?”
“No. On the contrary. I’m glad you took them, or rather, glad to think I had bought something you liked well enough to want to use.”
“If you want them, take them back,” my father said. He had lost his pleasant relaxed look, and he looked into his glass and then drank from it. “They were just hanging there year after year; a terrible waste; it seemed a shame.”
“Yes, well, keep them; a present. My hunting days are over anyway. But what about the other things?”
My father shrugged but didn’t answer, and I took a drink of the whiskey, good now, bright and hot, a knife blade sharp with the promise of real anger and the strength to reveal it. “My pants, what happened to all my pants? You didn’t farm in my ski pants, did you? And the pickup, what about the truck? I didn’t see it any place. I want to drive it back to Texas when I go.”
“Oh, the truck,” he said. He straightened up in his chair, looked at me briefly, frowning, and drained his glass.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “Is this some kind of a game? Why don’t you talk? Have you stored the truck someplace? Can’t you tell me?”
“The truck was worn out, a pile of junk.”
“It wasn’t when I left it with you, and what do you mean was?”
“Was means was, goddammit. It means I had a chance to sell it, and I sold it.”
“Well, thanks a lot. Without asking me, without even telling me. Were you so goddamn sure I wasn’t coming back?”
“That’s a hell of a thing to say,” my father said angrily. “There wasn’t a day I didn’t pray for your safe return, not a day I didn’t sit here dreading that telegram from the War Department. All you can ever see is your side of things.”
“I come back, the closets are empty, you’ve sold my car, my clothes have disappeared. Your side of things, hell, you don’t open your mouth.”
“I’m not accountable to anybody, goddammit,” my father yelled. “This is my house, I’m master here.”
We sat without speaking, glaring at one another with hatred. “How could you sell my truck?” I asked finally. ‘T never signed the title of ownership. You must have forged my name; they call that grand larceny, don’t they?”
“Throw me in jail then,” my father cried. “Like the commies do, teaching children to turn on their own parents, denounce them to the police, my God, what a world.” He pushed himself to his feet, stepped over the dog, and left the room; the dog, in a parody of his master, struggled up and, lightly weaving, followed him. From the pantry the click of glasses, the scent of bitters; from the kitchen the clicking of my stepmother’s high heels, the opening and closing of cupboard doors—every sound familiar and depressing, never-to-be-forgotten family sounds as sad for their banality as old screams. And it was the strong antiseptic perfume of the angostura, as threatening as a whiff of chloroform, that made me feel for the first time that I was really back and that I would still be unable to function in this madhouse.
When my father returned he carried two drinks, one he set beside my still half-filled one. And apparently he had allowed himself an extra slug in the pantry: His face was flushed, his eyes shining, his step heavy. He sank into his armchair and sipped his drink.
The dog like a Doppelganger appeared in the doorway, weaved across the room, gave a series of little yippy barks, and collapsed at my father’s feet. “I take one step, she takes one step, I take two steps, she takes two steps,” my father said, bending down to the dog.
After a long, uncomfortable silence I asked,’’How much did you get for my pickup?”
And after another long moment, “Oh shit, I don’t remember; more than it was worth.”
“if you think I have a right to know, do me a big favor and concentrate, huh?”
“All right, then: $900,” my father said.
“I just don’t understand. You’re so proud to be Republican, so proud, so proud of that. And what’s the difference between a Republican and a Democrat? Mainly their attitude toward private property. Republicans think there is something sacred about the things they own, ownership more sacred than human rights. Hang the son of a bitch who steals my bread to keep from starving.”
“I worked and slaved; the bread is mine,” my father said. “If he wants bread let him work for it; let him beg for it.”
“What I started to say is, I think you’re a lousy Republican, a real lousy one. Or maybe your property is sacred and everyone else’s is up for grabs.”
“Because I sold that pile ofjunk?You calling me a thief?” my father yelled. “ All the money you’ve had from me, all the cars I’ve paid for, violin lessons, private school, a trip around the world, that what-do~you-call-it, that starvation trip around the world, and not a word of thanks. So what do you do first thing, when we haven’t seen you for years?You head for California. Well, let that woman take care of your things then if that’s the way you want it.”
“That woman” was my mother, but in 25 years he had never referred to her as “your mother.” And when carried away, he would call her names so rough that at age 15 1 had threatened to fight him, and out of my mind with rage had called him a son of a bitch,.the first of the two or three times I lost control, felt my father’s blood rushing through me, felt the high intense joy of going crazy, of saying anything, ready to kill.
“Sorry, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. I doubt if you do either.”
“You could hardly wait to go and stay with that woman in Sausalito. This is your home here, but oh no, after two years you choose to go first to that woman. It looks like everything you do— like voting for that son of a bitch Rosenfeld, voting Democratic just because I hate those commie bastards—is designed to hurt me.”
“Listen,” I began. “With all due respect
“All due respect, my ass,” my father cried. “Don’t all-due-respect me.”
“OK, with all due disrespect—this whole conversation is absolutely unbelievable. You’re purposely getting drunk, like you always do so you can pick a fight; you’re going 10 miles out of your way to pick a fight. Old times, old times.”
“Don’t tell me how to act in my own house, goddammit,” my father said, trying to lower his voice a little, like a driver letting up on the gas with the knowledge, that he may be about to spin out of control.
“Now about going to California, I went to San Francisco because that’s where my wife is. I wanted to see Dorothy. Now how is that designed to hurt you?”
“Hell, it’s always the same old thing; I don’t know, I don’t know. The way you walk in here, that arrogant way of yours, demanding this, demanding that, ruffling my feathers the wrong way”
“But what arrogant way, and aren’t you responsible for the things you do? My God, in three months I’ll be 30, I’m not a little boy anymore to be kicked around. I don’t need your permission to go visit my wife, and what am I asking that isn’t mine to ask about? Where are my gray flannel trousers, my shirts, where’s my fucking underwear?”
“All right, goddammit, we’ll have none of that gutter talk around here.”
“Yeah, excuse me, five years in the army and that’s how you talk.”
“Well, keep it in the barracks.”
We sat and silently drank. My father had begun to wheeze in one of his mini-asthma attacks as though he were allergic to me, as though my presence were suffocating him. “Will you give me a check for the pickup, for the $900 that you got?” I asked finally.
The question obviously irritated him. He growled something, a kind of dog growl, and then, except for his wheezing, remained silent. “With the money maybe I can buy an old clunk that will get me back to Texas. That’s too far to go on a bus and these days the train’s almost as bad.” I was sitting on thousands of dollars, piles of $100 and $500 bills jammed into my wallet—flight pay, combat pay, the better part of almost a year’s earnings. It was money that I had suddenly decided not to mention.
My father continued to sit without speaking: an old trick, the dead calm before the storm, and recognizing it I felt both anticipation and dread. I knew now that for a time, or for always, he had decided to wipe me out of his life, and knowing that he was about to demonstrate his absolute power gave me a cleansing feeling of freedom—the freedom to goad him, to tell him to go to hell. “Well,” I said finally, “it’s absolutely great to be back in the warm heart of the old family circle; everything’s the same, isn’t it, that old black magic? And how nice to have the same- old friendly conversations. Of course, I’m sad you’ve got so hard of hearing, but I guess that just means I have to talk louder.” I waited a few seconds and asked in a strong voice, “That truck of mine you sold, will you give me the money so I can buy a new one?”
“All the cars, all the clothes, a college education,” he yelled. “Make no demands on me; I’ll give you nothing.” He drained his glass, fought his way out of the chair, and clumped out of the room—the man, then the dog.
While he rattled glasses and bottles together and muttered to himself in the pantry, my stepmother came to the doorway. “Come please. Now. Dinner’s on the table.” She waited, her face closed, until 1 got up and, half drunk, went in to that invariable meal she had prepared and divided on three plates—a small steak, a baked potato, a leaf of lettuce holding afloat a square of strawberry Jell-O below a dollop of cottage cheese. A niggardly meal that, along with her eccentric habit of hiding food and filling secret closets with tinned goods, seemed to illuminate a childhood of poverty and terrible insecurity. I estimate now that before she died she had half-filled 20,000 dinner plates in this identical way. We sat at our places. “What have you done to upset your father?” my stepmother asked me.
“I’m upset because all my clothes have disappeared—tennis rackets, golf clubs, skis, everything. Everything I left here in your care. And he’s mad because I’m upset. Can you believe it?”
She didn’t say anything and then called into the pantry, “Hurry, sweetheart, we’re waiting for you, and it’s getting cold.”
“He sold my little truck on me, my truck, can you believe it?”
“Well, he’s your father, and everything he does is for your own good, I’m sure.” She picked up her fork. “Let’s not wait.”
“What about my things? The closet s empty except for my tails, and they’re completely eaten by moths. But why, tell me? Couldn’t you have had the kindness to dump a nickel’s worth of mothballs in that closet?”
“I am not the upstairs maid,” my stepmother said. “And after all it has been five years.”
“Did you sell my clothes?”
“Certainly not. How can you say such a thing?”
“Well, then, to the Goodwill, to the Orthopedic, the Salvation Army?”
But before she answered man and dog appeared, man with hair disheveled as though he had been passing his hands through it. He bent and said something sweetly secret to the dog and walked around the table to his place at its head. Whiskey spilled from his glass as he set it down. “Why can’t you be like Missy?” he asked me accusingly. “She gives me nothing but happiness. I take one step, she takes one step; I take two steps, she takes two steps “
As the dog passed my stepmother’s chair she restrained her by the collar. “Issums, duzzums, wussums?” she asked. The dog stared, with a terrible patience, at an empty space floating just before her eyes.
“I take three steps, she takes three steps,” my father said.
“Right,” I said, “and so on. Great story; right out of ‘Arabian Nights.’ “ I drained my drink, pushed the plate away from me with its silly food that I’d never be able to swallow and, smiling brightly, studied my father’s dark face. There was no sense in continuing this hateful soap opera. “But tell me this: When you’ve taken 26,742 steps, how many steps has the dog taken? . . . And how do you know?”
“My God,” my father said with disgust, “you’re crazy.”
“And I certainly agree with you that in this house, at least, you and I would both be happier if I were a dog. What a tragedy for you that you had two children instead of what you really wanted—dogs. Boy, wouldn’t that have been perfect, me one step behind you year after year, red ribbons on my ears, a kiss for me in the dark, baby necktie, little dog galoshes, a plaid raincoat. I’d be called Pissy. Old Missy and Pissy, what a combo, your two dogs one step behind, little dogs doing tricks—sit up, roll over, stand.” I snapped my fingers at each command, feeling wonderful, curing myself of the war, and feeling the anger growing up in me almost like a sexual arousement. My father stared at me in dull drunken amazement, for this was one of the few times I had ever goaded him toward irrationality, had ever seen myself as a kind of Toscanini directing and encouraging my father to plunge into his apocalyptic mode. Now, flourishing an imaginary whip, I snapped my fingers a£ain and cried in a loud, harsh voice that mocked his voice when drunk, “Down, boy, down. Play dead.”
Just possibly it was the word “dead” that triggered my father’s fall into the next, the final stage of his rage. But it was not whatever complicated feelings he may have had about my death that jabbed at his psyche; it was the resurrection in his mind of Missy No. 1 who, hidden now within my role as dog in the mocking farce, may have come to life to remind him of that other death that he would never come to terms with, the unforgivable death of that first collie, that original Missy who lived on within all the other identical dogs he owned.
My father, redder in the face now, gulped his drink and began to speak in a voice that grew louder and more intense—like the second movement of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony, where above a constantly repeated theme the airplanes arrive, and then the tanks, and then the heavy artillery, and then the women dying in the snow, their screams almost obliterating the sound of machine guns; banal art turned into grandeur through repetition and cacophony.
“All right, now,” my father began, “you listen to me. In all your life you’ve had just one success, made captain. And why? Because you volunteered for something you couldn’t get out of, couldn’t give up on. You’re like a fart in a skillet,jumping around from one thing to another. You never did want to make your living like anybody else. Business? Oh no, that’s too common. Spoiled rotten by your grandmother, God rest her soul, that’s your problem. You think money grows on trees.”
My stepmother, that evil witch of a stepmother out of childhood fairy tales, picking delicately at the food on her plate, listened quietly, vaguely smiling. She reminded me of a voice coach approving a well-rehearsed performance whose points she may even have inspired. My father drank again, and his voice strengthened. “They fired you out of the mill; you were a bad influence they said. My God, we owned the mill, and they fired you out of it. And you went back to college. First, it was journalism, wasn’t it? For about a year. Then you decided journalism was corrupt. You couldn’t dirty your hands. What was it next? Oh yes, the movies. You were going to write for the movies. But you failed at that like you fail at everything, and then it was stories and books.You’re going to be an artiste and write for the commie press,Atlantic and Harpers, magazines I wouldn’t have in my house. Now if you want my opinion, you couldn’t write your way out of a paper bag, all that childish stuff, all those dirty words, not one decent person in all those stories. Working stiffs, hitchhikers, runaways, bums. But we went along with you, shelling out the money to send you to college year after year. So now you have this first-rate education, Oregon, Columbia, and where do you end up? Underneath a 49-cent straw hat, up to your knees in cowshit on a dry land pasture that wouldn’t keep a dozen cows in grass, starvation acres, and you with your college education, an out-at-the-knees, checker-necked Okie.
“I thought the war would make a man of you, knock all that foolishness out of you, but no, everything’s just the same. For five years you left me alone, left me to enjoy my life, five calm and sunny years, the happiest I’ve ever had, you in England or Texas or Fort Lewis, and that sister of yours married to a Mexican abstract artist in San Francisco, and don’t tell me he isn’t a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. And now you’re back, you walk in here demanding this, demanding that, ordering me around in my own house, ruining my sunset years. WeU, I won’t have it. Leave me in peace; make your own way, goddammit. Get off my back.”
Halfway through this tirade (parts of which I had heard many times before, parts of which I would hear many times again), I had been unable to keep my face decently solemn; a wide grin, so wide it made my mouth ache as though I sat in a dentist’s chair, took possession of me. Actually, it was a grin as painful as a scream for what it hid—my despair at knowing that I had lost that $50,000 he had promised me on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. My own personal money tree, twisted and stunted as it was, had lost its leaves, the Ice Age had swept over money tree country. Now I began to choke back great hoots of furious and derisive laughter that burst out as he finished speaking. How skimpy the little ways, out of our ape’s past, that we are given to express emotion when laughter can so closely mimic sobs. I was standing behind my chair, not knowing how I had gotten there or when I had left the table, drunk I suppose, or at any rate numbed by the old eloquence, like a hypnotized chicken on a chalk-line, into a kind of semiconsciousness.The laughter erupted in waves, my stomach nauseated and convulsed so that the laughter came surging up like vomit. I stared at my father, at the malice in his face, at the little froth of spit-bubbles that had collected at the corners of his lips, at his wild tortured eyes; thinking with the beginnings of relief that would now steadily grow, “Well, there is nothing that he can do to me now, or rather, there is only one thing left that he can do to me now. Kill me.”
And something new had struck me as I had listened: that he saw me in the same non-chronological way that I saw him, and that his angers at what I had done at the age ofl8orl0or25or5 stiU burned in his memory with the original heat, each separate memory of equal importance—unforgotten, unforgiven. Looking at me he could not see a 30-year-old man, a soldier back from the war, but a hundred different aspects of that same man: the terrified screamer crouched in his crib under the power of a monstrous dream, the bed-wetting 12-year-old, the petty thief, the masturbator, the awkward liar, the lazy daydreaming yokel, the sarcastic student arrogant in the certainty of his own cleverness and the boundless ignorance of his father.
Like him as he stared at me, I see him now, outside of time, the whole album of his life portrayed on a flat plane like a Warhol painting, 50 silk screens of Jackie Onassis framed together, except I see him simultaneously at all the different ages of his life—as farmer, child, dying veteran, man of business, recluse, bankrupt failure deserted by his wife into a temporary paralysis of the will. Strangely enough, ï see him most clearly through the eyes of others, doing violent things in his youth and early manhood, acting out his obsessions years before I was born.
What î have tried to do when writing about my father has proved to be impossible: to put him there before the reader in one great flash of comprehension, like the 10-second earthquake that brings the house·down around you—the whole man as I see him, seeing him in all his roles at once. This may be one of the miracles of painting or music; I have read of certain composers who can, before setting pen to paper, hear in all its intricacy an entire work in a single moment of time. And if the work is great enough it will leave the listener with the feeling that the impossible has been achieved, time itself obliterated, as the whole form of the symphony lives in the mind like an abstract work of art that one sees and can almost, but not quite, draw.
At the same time, among the hundreds of pictures that live simultaneously in my mind when I think of my father, his face that May evening in 1945 (helpless, furious, distraught, accusing, drunken, and yes, guilty) sits at the very center of my idea of him. And leaks its poison over all the others.
One very short last paragraph will bring this episode to an end and get me out of the dining room. For a time I couldn’t speak, but when I could I asked, “You got it all off your chest, you finished?” and then after a sulky silence, “Well, then, if you’ll excuse me.” I left the room and was halfway up the front stairs when my father yelled after me in typically brilliant recapitulation, “You don’t know shit from tar.” It was the last time I would hear his voice for almost two years.