Archive for the ‘Family Circus’ Category

State of the Bunion

August 22, 2011

My boss is a 63-year old ex-Marine vegan teetotaler who as long as we’ve known each other has given me shit in a (mostly) joshing way about certain habits of mine—mostly the smoking but my diet, too—and a constant theme in this has been his occasionally irritating certainty about what does and doesn’t give a person cancer. So, fine…go ahead and give me shit, I don’t care, just so long as you’re sure to give me a long leash along with it—that was my attitude, and it worked for both of us. Then, some time back, he started having trouble peeing and found out he had bladder cancer. They removed his bladder and he was out for four months, recovering and whatnot, and he finally came back to work two weeks ago. His energy and sense of humor have been remarkably high, but he’s also been  thin and frail since the operation, looking a lot older than his age. (One day I mentioned the irony that of the two of us he should be the one to get sick, and he crowed “I know it! I can’t believe it!”) He was limping around all day today, and it turns out he took a tumble while walking from the train to the office this morning, landing on one of those skinny little hips of his. It was still bugging him this afternoon so he just now took off for home, and to top things off he’s supposed to get the test results today showing whether the cancer’s spread to  his other lymph nodes—a big fat worrisome if  since it already spread to the one by his bladder.

And of course I’m still dealing with my dad, who, when I ask him how he’s doing, simply tends to mutter “Not good. Not good.” (You know you’re talking to your 84 year old father when he asks you if you know who Pat Boone is, and he doesn’t hear you screaming “YES! YES! I KNOW WHO HE IS!” because he’s too busy telling you Boone used to be on the old Arthur Godfrey show.) Dad’s going blind, he’s got emphysema, he has a double hernia that his HMO won’t touch because of his overall condition, his back is giving out, and he has an enlarged heart, plus his skin looks like shit because he doesn’t have enough energy to smear himself down with some moisturizer. And yet he keeps floating the idea of coming to San Francisco for a visit, which is obviously the looniest idea in the world. I pointed out that if making it across the living room is a Herculean labor for him, how the hell does he expect to get to the airport for a two-hour plane ride, keep his energy up for 2-3 days, and so on, all of which only begs the question of why he’d want to travel when he can barely see or move around. I told him it’d make more sense if I visited him again, an idea I’d barely gotten out of my mouth before he was on it like a ton of rocks: “That’d be great!” Then, of course, it was easy to see he really just wants to see me one more, or one last, time.

This bullshit’s giving me the intimations-of-mortality blues, I know that much. Some folks would say it’d be easier if I’d written a great book or had kids so I could feel like I was living on through them, but that just brings to mind Woody Allen’s line “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” Okay, maybe I don’t need to live forever, but the current system of things leaves a lot to be desired and I keep coming back to the idea that I was just born too early in the evolutionary tide. Sure, it beats where the caveman came in, but you just know that 100 years from now cancer’s going to be a thing of the past, and maybe the Tea Party, too. Maybe people won’t even be dying by then, and they’ll have gotten past all prejudice and superstition, and we’ll all be living on peaches and Irish whiskey. I feel out of touch with most every goddam thing anyhow, and when I go downstairs for a cigarette I spend most of that time staring into the middle distance and wondering “What did I want?” Well, in the immortal words of Elaine Benes, I know it wasn’t this. Just now I was down there and some cute young thang in a classless, clueless star-fucker get-up—Ugg boots, miniskirt and cowboy hat—came moseying up the sidewalk when a second woman appeared, walking in the opposite direction. This one was closer to my age, and she had appealingly scruffy gray hair, a denim jacket, and blue jeans with a hole in the knee, and she was moving like she didn’t give a damn about anything in the world. When the two of them passed each other they seemed to lock into a single human being for one elongated second, and I felt like tilting back my head and baying at the sky.

The Return of Pap Finn

August 16, 2010

Y’know, not to go on and on about this shit, but the old man called last night, and we’d just gotten the hey-how-are-ya stuff out of the way when he blurted out that he’d forgotten why he called. Okay, that’s fine, so we kicked back and just talked about baseball and quitting smoking and how he was the guy who opened up Motorola’s market in Mexico (a favorite topic), until he suddenly interrupted himself in mid-sentence. His reason for calling had come back to him, he announced, at which point he proceeded to lay on me a few choice tips for getting laid.

• Be yourself. Don’t try to impress. Instead, let them impress you.
• Department store sales clerks are often lonely.
• Women 36-40 are “the horniest”.
• Hotel bars are a good place to meet older women with money.

There was no real context for any of this; he was just sharing the fruits of a lifetime’s research with me. Aside from the fact that Don Draper would reject these ideas as degrading to everyone involved, I’m a little freaked out that this is what an 83 year old man thinks is fitting advice to give his son—in the year 2010, no less. (At least he didn’t suggest that I croon “Stardust” to the rich old hotel ladies before looting their steamer trunks.) He’s sober nowadays and he at least sounds in control of his faculties when he’s saying this stuff, but I’m fucking-A starting to wonder. I’m also starting to wonder if him splitting when I was a kid wasn’t the absolute best thing that could’ve happened to me, even if it did mean being raised by Mommie Dearest. With all the proclivities and hang-ups I’ve managed to come up with on my own, I hate to think what I’d be like if he’d stayed.

Just a deck of cards and a jug of wine

May 21, 2010

It was a quick trip—two or three days in Phoenix and three or four in Santa Fe—and now I’m back in S.F., already at loose ends and itchy and staying up late and so on, which is just about where I left off. The trip itself was tedious and rushed but only fitfully as stressful as it might’ve been. I promised myself beforehand I wasn’t going to have any eruptions or meltdowns no matter how aggravating or claustrophobic things got, and I kept my word. It wasn’t always easy.

Dad’s how I remember him, more or less—a busted-down rake, but bony now, with silvered hair and skin that’s been trashed by the Arizona sun. He’s basically a handsome version of me, but if I ever needed serious proof that he’s my dad, I’d have it every time he opens his mouth. This genetics stuff is some serious shit, people: not only does his voice sound exactly like mine, we both favor certain speech patterns and even particular figures of speech, while sharing a delayed, dryly sarcastic reaction to the world around us—all this from two guys who’ve spent less than a week of waking time around each other in the last fifty years. But he’s a strange guy, a kind of sexual recidivist. He gets it that he committed a fundamental wrong against his wife and kids—he brings it up almost too much at this point—but he still has a gristly streak of 1950s-vintage misogyny running through his veins. At one point I mentioned an annoying habit that an old girlfriend of mine had, and he took an absurd amount of pleasure from my Girl Problems, as if they were proof-positive that women, when you get right down to it, are mostly a pain in the ass. And when he told me the woman who lives next door is only a month younger than he is and I joked that he ought to ask her out, he shot back, “Just because I’m hungry doesn’t mean I’m starving.” I didn’t argue with him about any of this stuff—I wasn’t there to fight the old dog for its bone—and in any case I’m hardly the best candidate to highlight the sexism in another man’s remarks. He’s pretty accessible considering everything he’s been and done, but twice he choked up and had to stop talking—both times while discussing the flinty, frosty woman who raised him. (At one point he said he’d never seen his mother smile—not once in his lifetime—a notion which certainly jibes with my memory of Nanny.) He did his best to answer the five or six or seven big questions I’ve been toting around for years, and finally being able to scratch them off my tattered mental checklist and put that shit to bed for good…well, that was a savory little process.

I was glad to get out of there but it wasn’t because of Dad. Phoenix, or at least the part of north Phoenix that I was in, sucks in extremis. I’m a desert man to the core of my being, and even the landscape left me unmoved. There was exactly one moment when I saw anything that might be taken for beautiful: sitting on Dad’s back patio on my first evening there, I looked across the miles of nothingness to a distant mountain, and silhouetted by the fading sun the line of trees marching over its peak looked like a Mohawk haircut. That’s it. Otherwise I saw a wasteland of K-Marts and strip-mall karate schools, discouraged looking people standing on street corners and spinning giant handheld arrows advertising barber schools and brake specialists, and ugly RVs and low-riders grinding out loud obnoxious music. I couldn’t even find a decent cup of coffee. At least I timed the trip right, because my dad and I were just starting to snap at each other my last night at his place. That was when we got onto politics, and he told me that Obama was the first Democrat he’s voted for since Truman, a fact which lost a lot of its coolness quotient once the discussion moved to Vietnam—my bright idea—and we began acting out one of Archie and Meathead’s lost routines.

New Mexico is for real, though—God’s backyard if ever it existed. My sister picked me up at the Albuquerque airport and took me back to Santa Fe via a winding route through the mountains, pausing for lunch in Madrid (accent on the first syllable), an old mining town now taken over by latter-day freaks, giving the place the most genuine longhair atmosphere I’ve seen since Austin in the early ’70s. Then a slow descent until the salmon-colored pueblo homes and neo-colonial buildings started popping up…

When we reached Santa Fe I checked into my motel and, needing a little downtime, I went out on my own that first night, heading directly over to the Plaza—the old center of town. It’s where the Santa Fe Trail ended, and what with the Governor’s Palace and a handful of cathedrals dating back to the early 1600s all nearby, the stench of history is enough to make your eyes water. A band on the stage was playing ranchera music and the Plaza was filling up with people, mostly tourists and Indian souvenir vendors, but also about a score of guys in Bandido jackets and their skinny girlfriends, each of ’em sporting a bad shag haircut. A long row of second-story windows in an office building overlooking the length of the square suddenly came to life, lighting up first over here and now down there with rear-projected images of actors reading the words of long-dead pioneers, their amplified voices competing directly with the music and people’s conversations so that every corner of the plaza was buzzing with noise. Every vacation has that one pure moment that justifies the cost and hassle of the whole experience—that moment when the world of hapless jackass cares and woes falls away from your shoulders, when you know no one on the face of the earth can find you for this one second, and your entire body relaxes. This here was that moment, with twilight just slipping into darkness, Venus and a crescent moon shining overhead, and me sitting on one of the square’s wrought-iron benches, smoking a butt with my legs stretched out and my hands clasped behind my head, checking out the band and the German tourists and the nutty woman who was dancing around by herself in front of the amps and the even nuttier kid who tried to join in the merriment by banging his head against a tree. Eventually I drifted a couple of blocks away, to the old De Vargas Hotel. It’s been all spiffed up and goes by a different name today, but in ’73 its style was what might best be called Gothic Colonial, and I spent a night there sprawled across one of its faded old bedspreads reading Faulkner’s “The Bear”—one of the best reading experiences any man will ever have. After that I kept poking around downtown until 11 or so, when I finally found the type of divey little bar I like to do my drinking in. There was a three-man band playing indie rock and their first number was a killer but it was the only decent thing in their set—their other stuff was a bunch of monotonous yowling glop. I didn’t care. I sat back, put away three or four margaritas, and forgot about everything.

Sunday I went down to Old Fort Sumner, where Garrett shot Billy the Kid, and where the Kid lies buried in a common grave with his playmates Charles Bowdre and Tom O’Folliard. (Or Charles Martin Smith and Rudy Wurlitzer, if that makes it easier for you.) Except for the historic plaques nothing’s left of the fort or Pete Maxwell’s house, where the shooting occurred, but I’d totally forgotten that the garrison was stationed there to keep an eye on the 8,000 Navajo who’d been force-marched to their new home from the Canyon de Chelly. Unsurprisingly, I guess, Bosque Redondo is in the one ugly corner of New Mexico that I saw: flat, hot and dusty, with the only available water source—the Pecos—swimming in disease and given to flooding. The road back to Santa Fe goes through Santa Rosa, a ghostly little town that looks like a leftover set from an Irwin Allen movie. It sits on a highway juncture so it does see traffic, just nowhere near enough of it. I have no idea what the hell happened there but it couldn’t have been good; I’ve never seen such a high percentage of closed and abandoned businesses anywhere in the world, and while some of them look like they went down in the recession, most of them look like they’ve been vegetating by the roadside for decades. Whatever the case, the decay and dilapidation were almost spectacularly picturesque: I first noticed it in the ochre motel sitting atop a series of ravaged terraces and a drained swimming pool, and then the package liquor store looking dignified despite the plywood sheets covering its windows and at least a score of gas stations crumbling luxuriously away. Of course, it didn’t hurt anything that Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour was on the air at that moment, or that the show’s theme that day was road songs, or that the particular song playing just then was “Lost Highway”…

My sister and I got along like dykes and dogs. On Monday we drove to Taos and compared a lot of notes about the folks. Since she was the one who stayed in Houston after Dad rematerialized in ’83, she got to tell me what it was my mom said when she laid eyes on him for the first time since he skipped out on her 20 years earlier. Mom came out with a question that sounds prepared as all hell but given the circumstances is still pretty damn funny: “Alan! Where the hell have you been?

Comes a Time

April 26, 2010

So I talked to the old man again. He called one night last week to bring me up to speed on the condition of his “estate”—and boy, did that not take a long time—before moving onto other subjects. Mainly, I was wondering about his health. In the first call he’d said he doesn’t have much time left, and I was still a little too dumbfounded to ask if it was a matter of mere feeling or based on an actual prognosis. Turns out that, though he does have emphysema, it’s more the former than the latter, but you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to know the clock is running when you’re 83, half-blind and tired as all hell. His talking about how dependent he is on others drove the point home, so I wasn’t shocked when he started talking openly of snuffing it after he concludes our business. (He actually asked the question “So what have I got to live for?” without it sounding like a plea for, well, anything—not even time.)

We talked some more about all that other jazz, and it was a chance to ask him some questions I’ve been harboring lo these many years, thanks in no small part to Mom’s propensity for spinning tales taller than Samuel Clemens’ eye. Liquor and insecurity are great fuel for loony tunes, and Mom was always embellishing stories—stories which often had a grain of truth—to make her or her kids stand out just a tad from the rest of the crowd. She delayed telling my sister and me that our father was illegitimate or adopted, which was the reasonable thing to do, even if it did make me think I was Jewish for the first nine or ten years of my life. One night, though, either because I was old enough or she was drunk enough, she finally disabused me of the notion, but not without immediately replacing it with a perfect blend of wish fulfillment and high camp. The new story went that my father’s actual parents had been the great alcoholic actor John Barrymore and a chorus-girl whom he’d knocked up; then, perhaps feeling the story still lacked a certain absurd pizzazz, Mom added that the go-between between the chorus girl and my foster grandparents was none other than Groucho Marx. She didn’t pass any of this off as fact, simply as a story she’d encountered at some pass—while reading Bulfinch, perhaps—but still, it’s nothing to dangle in front of children with already shaky identity issues. So that was one of the things I asked Dad about, and on the other end of the line I could hear him saying “Ahhhh…” in the tone people use when they’re shaking their head back and forth. All he knows is that Nanny and Pa—the Lithuanian Blocks, or Blockavitches, or whatever the hell we were called over there—took him home from the hospital and that his birth certificate listed the mother’s name as “Unknown”. According to him, though, my grandfather actually did know Groucho, and used to play cards with him. Talk about your gone worlds…

So there was stuff like that to go over, and there was also some catching up to do about my three half-brothers. Each of them was born to separate mothers, like Ben Cartwright’s sons, so they’ve always been scattered to hell and back. The oldest one is an insurance exec in New England; the one in line after me is a heroin addict and MIA; the youngest of all—Raul—apparently has his own ranch in Chihuahua state. (I did meet the junkie back in the ’80s, and he’s definitely the one who got Dad’s chick-magnet genes: while we sat at a table waiting for him to join us, he concentrated on his pinball game, totally ignoring both us and the cute young barmaid who stood entranced at his elbow.)


I wrote all that about ten days ago. Since then, well, shit’s been happening, plus my boss for some strange reason has been working my butt to the bone, leaving me hardly any time  to stare into space and chew over these weird remains.  The gears keep turning, though…

Anyway, I guess it was last Tuesday that I jumped on the elevator, heading downstairs for a smoke. It stopped on the sixth floor, though, and a woman got on—glasses, ponytail, attractive, with a couple creases at the corners of her mouth the only tip-off that she was anywhere close to my age. We were alone in the elevator, and she immediately started staring at me, first kind of slit-eyed, then with her mouth falling open as if to say, “Hey, dumbass, don’t you remember anything?” Finally she just asked outright, “Is your name Tom?” It was Laura, a woman I used to work with as paralegals; worked with, and dated, too, for a brief while back in the ’80s. She’s thinner than she was, and her hair’s a different color now, but it was her all right. She was one of the smarter women I ever went out with: she actually laughed at my damn Stalingrad jokes, and one morning in a North Beach diner, after eavesdropping on a quartet of 20-something dudes who were dropping their g’s at the next table, she whispered to me, “Listen—those guys are pretending to be stupid.” I haven’t seen her since ’87 or so (I don’t even remember exactly how it ended), but she told me she married some guy just a couple years later, and they’ve had three kids.

That was the night I happened to hunker down with a couple of Neil Young’s concert documentaries. The first one, 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, is close to perfect as a musical experience, but it’s also the one where Young unwisely dressed his roadies as Jawas and had them bustle about onstage—in clogs—and slow-dance to “Like a Hurricane”. A disaster. Then I threw in Jonathan Demme’s Neil Young: Heart of Gold, which captured Young’s concert at the Ryman 3-4 years ago. I was still chewing over Laura telling me that her oldest son is 21 now. It was like, Jesus, forget how fast five years go by nowadays; we’ve hit the point where you run into an old friend and a whole life has transpired in the meantime. I couldn’t help but get a little masochistic and start toting it up like a scorecard. In the 23 years since I’d seen her, she’s been married, had someone waiting for her every night of her life, was busy with a career and raising kids and putting a home together, and all that time I was doing…What, exactly? When her first kid was turning 5, I was alone, dropping out of A.A., and starting to drink again. When he turned 10 I was futilely casting about for a change in my life—any change. When he turned 15 another relationship was falling apart and I was settling into what would be another half-decade of hardship and near solitude. And now here was Neil Young again, almost thirty years after Rust Never Sleeps. It was poignant enough to find him no longer the perfect convergence of face and voice and material he embodied my entire adult life, but rather a portlier, grayer, jowlier outline of that figure, a man incapable of hitting the high notes of his own songs any longer, and if I was 20 years old and seeing him for the first time, you’d be hard pressed to convince me that he once held out a world of riches. But he and his band were making their way through a lot of the old tunes as if none of that mattered, and the concert also marked the first public airing of material he wrote after the doctors found an aneurysm in his brain. Heart of Gold is brimming with Demme’s usual good sense and good taste, and with Young surrounded by a few close friends (including his wife) and running through a handful of songs frosty with the fleetingness of life, it works on you like a late Yeats poem.

At the moment, though, it just made me feel like Spinal Tap at Elvis’ grave—“Too much fucking perspective”—and somewhere in the middle of it I found myself  crying out “Aw, shit!”  to the empty livingroom. My original plan didn’t make a lick of sense to begin with, but listening to Young drove the fact home hard: What, I’m gonna wait until the old man croaks and then fly in, just in time to watch the estate liquidators cart away his old TVs? It’s past the point of being about who did what to whom or how anybody got hurt by it. At a high-water point of The Ambassadors, James says of his hero Lambert Strether, “That was the refinement of his supreme scruple—he wished so to leave what he had forfeited out of account. He wished not to do anything because he had missed something else, because he was sore or sorry or impoverished, because he was maltreated or desperate; he wished to do everything because he was lucid and quiet, just the same for himself on all essential points as he had ever been.” That’s advice any man can take to heart, and though I’ve spent most of my life pretty damn far from being either lucid or quiet, even I can see I need to visit him now just so I don’t spend the rest of my life wondering why I didn’t do it while I still had the chance.

So, the upshot, if not in a nutshell: I’m going to go spend a couple days with him next month, then fly on to Santa Fe and see my sister for the first time in 10 years. “Dad”—which is a strange damn word when you think about it—was almost giddy to hear the news, which was nice, but it also loosened that parental yakkiness gene that’s driven so many of my friends crazy over the years: now he’s hitting me with those “Something just occurred to me” calls, and even making one special call just to let me know that he managed to load my phone number into his speed-dial. Thank god we’re all going to be dead soon, that’s all I can say. I couldn’t begin to do this otherwise.

Family Circus Circus

April 6, 2010

It’s been an interesting few days at Casa Blockhead. First, I got this swollen spot on my right cheek—nothing too Elephant Mannish, just kind of an extra ridge above the cheekbone—and after some tests and bloodwork my doctor told me last week that I have Hepatitis C. An ultrasound on the 16th will reveal the extent of liver damage, and depending on those results I’ll either have a maintainable problem or a big problem; the doc, for what it’s worth, sounds optimistic, saying I’d be showing more signs if I had advanced cirrhosis. The news means I’m almost certainly done with booze—the best-case scenario would be “one or two, every so often”. That’s less than a big deal, though—my drinking’s been nose-diving on its own for 2-3 years now. I still haven’t opened the bottles of scotch or Beaujolais I got last Christmas, and I really don’t miss any of drinking’s attendant bummers, especially the crippling-ass hangovers that gobble up half a sodding day. How I contracted the hep, though, that remains a mystery. Dr. Dave seems sure it was from some rather stupid behavior I indulged in circa 1978, and that might well be the case, but I’d swear on a stack of Tibetan Books of the Dead that I’ve tested negative since then. I can even hear some doctor telling me I was clear of hep—I just can’t put a name or place to the occasion.

Anyway—so there’s that.

Then, this last Sunday morning, I checked my mail and found a letter from my dad. We haven’t spoken since ’87, when he came out to visit for a couple days and we got into a booze-fueled argument over the way he was treating the wait staff in the various bars and restaurants we happened to hit that day. (It was in the middle of a freezing winter, and in one deserted bar he gave the bartender so much grief over the heat being out that when he asked, “Do you know somewhere warm we can go?”, the bartender shot back, “Try Hell.”) Communication blackouts lasting 23 years would be pretty weird in most father-son relationships, but in our case there was actually a precedent for it: we also went from 1961 to ‘83 without any contact. ’61 is when he ditched my family—told my mom he was going on a business trip and disappeared into the Chicago night, leaving her with an eight-year old daughter and six-year old son. “What if he had stayed?” turned out to be the great what-if of our lives. But he didn’t, of course, and because he didn’t, we were all in for a very long and fantastically fucked up ride.

That ride got infinitely trickier in ’83. I was in Houston, where I’d been working for Shell Oil, and hating it, for a few years, when Shell announced a layoff program. They were suddenly willing to pay me $10,000 to get out of their face, a dream situation ranking even higher on my wish-list than a world of universal brotherhood, and I immediately started making plans to move to San Francisco. A major snag was that I was going to have to tell my family (also in Houston) that I was leaving, and I’d pretty much cut off contact with them a couple years earlier. My mom, who was fairly heroic in the early years after Dad’s departure, transferred more and more of her bitterness onto my sister and me as we got older. She couldn’t separate her kids growing up and leaving the nest from her husband having abandoned her—to her they were just different forms of desertion. She was a funny and well-read woman, and our house was always filled with smart, productive people, and for a few years in the mid ’60s she held a deeply gratifying job as a community organizer in LBJ’s poverty program, but none of it could ease the pain of what that sonofabitch did to her in 1961. Everything was personal to her (she nursed childhood grudges against her siblings to the end of her life), plus she’d been a lush forever, so as she got older she grew angrier and angrier, more histrionic and destructive. She pored over books like Eric Berne’s Games People Play, not for self-awareness, but for tips, the way West Point cadets study the tactics of Sun Tzu, and to salve her ego she employed gambits so emotionally monstrous that Tennessee Williams would’ve been stunned by them. The manipulation and the constant drama ultimately  grew too much for me; the guilt of cutting off one’s own mother had become easier to deal with than the pain of going through life with her.

But just as I was plotting out how best to drop the news that I was moving to a far-off city, and getting away for good, word came through that she was dying of lung cancer. (Salem cigarettes, three packs a day.) You’d think that that would’ve provided fun enough for good ol’ God, but no, He was just getting started. About ten days later my phone rang, and it was my sister calling to say she’d just gotten an interesting call—from our father. It was the first we’d heard from him since John-John Kennedy was crawling around the Oval Office. He was in bad shape: flat broke, both arms broken (from maybe a fall, maybe a beating), sleeping in Vegas hotel lobbies, and down to the last tooth or two in his mouth. Sis was sending him a one-way ticket to Houston and offered to put him up until he could get back on his feet. Thinking about it now, his arrival let escape town unscathed; with that circus going on, no one noticed me slipping out the back flap of the tent. I got away to San Francisco while he spent the last few months of ’83 trying to make things up to my mom. There was an initial reunion between them, and after that a series of visits where, if I understand right, they sat and talked about everything under the sun—even joked together. He managed her finances while my sister dealt with the live-in nurse, and together they ran her household.

In early April of ’84 he called and said that it was time to make my goodbyes to her. I was booked to fly back on a Friday, and on the Thursday night before the phone rang—it was Mom. Her voice was a dim velvety rasp in between gasps for air. She said a lot of nice, conciliatory things which a day or two later I’d understand were actually veiled goodbyes, but I wasn’t thinking that way at the time, so I just kept saying, “I’ll see you tomorrow, I’ll see you tomorrow.” After we hung up, she waited until the nurse left the room, then somehow made it out of bed to where the morphine was sitting. When the nurse returned, she was already curled up on the floor, and she died while my plane was in the air the next day.

I’ll skip the memorial service, and I’ll also skip the visit to Houston a year later, by which time Dad had magically moved into a new condo, bought a new car, and gotten new dentures, all by selling rare coins for a company operating out of a grimy little storefront. (His knack for finding money has always lagged one crucial step behind his talent for losing it.) That was also the trip where I met my younger half-brother—another mess, resulting from yet another busted marriage. In ’87 my pop came out to San Francisco with a “Doris” type—a big-haired, aging floozy; he installed her in a motel room, then took me out to get drunk. Then we’d had that fight, and the silence, until last Sunday.

This new letter—it only runs a few typed lines—merely says that he’s been searching for me and that he has “a number of things” he wants to talk about, and scrawled at the bottom in some giant, shaky handwriting is his phone number. A pre-printed line at the top asks the reader to excuse any spelling errors since he’s suffering from macular degeneration, and indeed the last line reads: “P.S.S. Please Sall.” I actually did an Internet search for him a couple years ago, and found a listing for someone with his name in Arizona. I’d figured it might be him (and it was), but I could never pull the trigger and call him. On the one hand I felt like whatever was done was done, and there was no reason to reopen such a miserable can of worms, while another voice kept whispering in my head that he’s, you know, my fucking father, and we aren’t going to be around forever, and how am I going to feel if I let this last chance go by without even trying to talk to him?

It took him a while but he made up my mind for me with that letter. I spent a couple of hours reading and rereading it, and playing my World War II videogame and staring blankly at the TV, while I tried to Zen it all out. He picked up on the second ring when I finally dialed the number. He sounds strong and lucid; more importantly—to me, anyway—he sounds like he finally gets it. Where he’d always dodged the subject of his deserting the family, he brought it up himself this time, and said he’d spent a lot of time thinking about the question I asked him in ’87: “Why’d you do it?” The answer he gave me goes back to his own upbringing—he was adopted and raised in the Bronx by a pair of Lithuanian Jews, a wonderful man who, sadly, worked far too many hours and a loveless woman who was no day in the park even when I knew her. The specifics of his answer mattered less than the fact that he’d remembered and thought about my question; whenever I’d raised the subject before, he’d only discuss it in vague theoretical terms, as if everything that happened back then was so hazy and penumbral that mere language could never serve to unlock its mystery. We blathered on for a bit about various topics—he likes Obama, for one thing, which is almost more shocking than his thinking about the past—before I finally asked him what he had on his mind.

It was what you imagine. He’s 83, practically blind, and hasn’t got much time left, or at least he thinks he hasn’t. He wants to settle his estate and, incidentally, make whatever amends he can in the process. He doesn’t have much—a few thousand bucks in Social Security payments, an apartment that sounds loaded with old TVs. I told him like an automaton that, yes, I’d take care of it; I still don’t know what other answer I could give. The only thing left to say to him now  is: “It’s all right, Dad.” I’m ready to say most anything else, but that one’s just stuck in my throat. At least, from the sound of things, I don’t have to figure it out tonight. We still have some soldiering on to do.

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