Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe
ALSO BY BERNARD COOPER
A Year of Rhymes
Maps to Anywhere
Simon & Schuster
New YorkÂ Â Â LondonÂ Â Â TorontoÂ Â Â Sydney
SIMON & SCHUSTER
Rockefeller Center 1230 Avenue of the Americas New York, NY 10020
Copyright Â© 2006 by Bernard Cooper
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
Chapters of this book have appeared in the following publications: “First Words” and “The Bill from My Father” (under the title “Mine”) in
magazine; “Winner Take Nothing” in
GQ, The Best American Essays of 2002,
edited by Stephen Jay Gould, and
The Man I Might Become: Gay Men Write About Their Fathers,
edited by Bruce Shenitz. The chapter entitled “The Bill from My Father” was performed on
This American Life.
This is a work of nonfiction. However, certain names and details of the characters' lives and physical appearances have been changed, and some events have been altered or combined for the sake of narrative continuity.
SIMON & SCHUSTER and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Designed by Kyoko Watanabe
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The bill from my father : a memoir / Bernard Cooper.
1. Cooper, Bernard, 1951âFamily.
2. Cooper, Bernard, 1951âChildhood and youth.
3. Authors, Americanâ20th centuryâFamily relationships.
4. Authors, Americanâ20th centuryâBiography.
5. Gay menâUnited StatesâBiography.
6. Fathers and sonsâUnited States.
813â².54âdc22Â Â Â 2005044503
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Thanks to Sloan Harris (who encouraged me to put it all together) and Margaret Marr at International Creative Magicians for their astonishing sleight of hand. Steady momentum for this project was provided by Geoff Kloske, one of the country's largest exporters of midnight oil. Steven, Kathryn, and Eliza at the Steven Barclay Agency have been invaluable in allowing me to meet writers and readers I might not otherwise have had the pleasure to know.
Where would a writer be without trusted early readers? I was lucky enough to see this text through Jeff Hammond's X-ray eyes. Tom Knechtel's gently rustling pom-poms bolstered my spirit without disturbing the neighbors. Glen Gold and Alice Sebold were instructive and loving and just plain fun. Two chapters in this book were shaped with a set of precision tools belonging to Kit Rachlis at
magazine. Amy Gerstler, amazing poet, turned the manuscript pages
WITH THE POWER OF HER MIND ALONE
! I could not have started, finished, or written the middle part of this book without Jill Ciment's friendship and long distance calling plan, or without Atsuro Riley's full-color diagrams of the universe.
My story only touches upon those of my sisters-in-law, Nancy and Sharleen, who have my deepest gratitude. Rabbi Bob Barruch performed a fact-checking mitzvah. Benjamin Weissman performed
a high dive while lighted on fire. Other superhuman feats were performed by Michael Lowenthal, Kimberly Burns, and Laura Perciasepe.
This book was completed with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and from the Brian Miller Fellowship.
The Bill from My Father
“I scratch,” said my father. “Itch it!”
I'd asked if he knew what his first words had been. Instead of
he blurted his earliest misunderstanding, his voice so plaintive an imitation of his childhood self I almost leaped out of my chair and asked him where it scratched.
The two of us were sitting in the living room of his Mediterranean house in Hollywood, the house in which I grew up and where my father now lived alone. During my boyhood, the room had been used to receive my parents' guests, a progressively rarer occurrence over the forty years of their marriage, and especially since my mother's death. The pillows, as always, were plumped, if musty. Knickknacks lined the shelves of the breakfront. A broad mahogany coffee table gleamed at our knees. This was the largest room in the house, its acoustics muted by wall-to-wall shag, the once-white fiber aging into ivory.
. Eighty years had passed since he made that jumbled plea to his parents, but when he tilted his head in recollection, sunlight from the bay window glinted in his horn-rimmed glasses, his brown eyes lit with the expectation that his need was about to be relievedâall it would take was accommodating fingers. I could almost feel his prickling skin and see him arch his back like a cat.
“But what you'd meant to say was, âI itch, scratch it'?”
“Of course that's what I meant to say! I was just a kid, for Christ's sake. I got the words all turned around.”
A microphone was propped atop the coffee table, and I nudged it closer to where he sat. I couldn't ask my father a question without his taking it as a challenge. He'd rightly have said the same of me. For as long as I could remember, our communication had been a series of defensive reflexes. No scholar could interpret a text with more care than we'd devoted to parsing each other's remarks, searching for words that might be tinged with insult.
I didn't mean you look tired in a bad way. I heard you the first time. What's with the face?
Such was the idiom in which we spoke. Not surprising, we didn't speak often, and when we did, it wasn't for long.
I'd been raised to assume that my father's history was a place forever out of bounds, a mythical city. His refusal to mention his past was as elemental as his olive skin, as inbred as his restlessness, as certain as his gloom at the first drops of rain. My father wouldn't talk. Oh, he rambled all right, joked and cajoled, but talk it was not. He blustered about the price of gas. He rhapsodized about the steak he ate for dinner, where it fell on the spectrum from rare to well done. But for all his chatter, he remained aloof. It was almost as if he hadn't existed before I was born, as if his history began the moment I perceived him, a blurry face floating above my crib and cooing musical nonsense. I'd lain there wide-eyed and made him happen, and so he was mine as much as I was his.
A tirelessly inquisitive kid, I'd often asked about his life before me. Where had he grown up? How had he met my mother? What did my three older brothers, Robert, Ronald, and Richard, do for fun when they were my age? He'd answer without elaborationâ
Atlantic Cityâ¦. At a friend's apartmentâ¦. Horse around
âhis terseness a warning that I'd have to content myself with whatever tidbits he parceled out. My father wasn't evasive so much as skilled at the illusion of candor. You asked, he answered. He routinely used the fewest words. Further questions were impertinent.
Our current conversation was more of the same.
“What other things do you remember from when you were little?”
“Tell me more.”
His expression said,
Taffy is taffy, for Christ's sake. What's to tell?
He was dressed in a khaki polyester jumpsuit, the official uniform of his retirement. The zipper ran from neck to crotch, enabling him to slip in and out of it with a minimum of effort, like a quick-change artist who donned the same costume again and again. The position of the zipper served as a barometer of his mood. When tugged low, it exposed a gold chain nestled in his silver chest hair. My father had an eye for the ladies, and he, in turn, gave them something to see: a wedge of tanned and manly skin. When pulled high, the zipper signaled his wish to withdraw, to go about his business unnoticed, the khaki fabric a camouflage that allowed him to merge with the background. That day in his living room, the jumpsuit was zipped as high as it would go.
He leaned forward in the wing chair and cleared his throat. “It was delicious, that taffy. Sticky and sweet. I bought it on the Atlantic City boardwalk. They made it with ocean water, which they got right there from the beach. In buckets, or something. That's why they called it âsaltwater' taffy. Now do you see?” He stared intently at the tape recorder while he spoke, as if the machine was not only recording the things he said but listening. When his hearing aid suddenly shrieked with feedback, he fiddled with its tiny dial until the sound sputtered and finally died. Then he blinked at me, speechless.
“Anything else?” I hadn't quite figured out how to narrow down my questions, how to prod him on. He drummed his fingers on the arm of the chair. What I didn't know about my father could have filled a book.
The idea to write a book about him had been suggested a few days earlier by an editor at a publishing house in New York. She phoned me at home one afternoon, introduced herself, and said she'd come across an essay I'd written about my father in a small literary review, one of my first appearances in print. She asked if I'd
read a recent best-selling memoir about a writer's relationship with his father, and when I told her I had, she proposed I write a version of that book for her. “But with your dad,” she added as an afterthought, “instead of his.”
It worried me that this editor (I hadn't yet published a book, and like a duckling that follows the first thing it sees, I'd begun to think of her as
editor) had such a definitive vision of the final product. Was what she really wanted this other author's book, but typed by me? She sensed my hesitation and tried to entice me with her blithe tone.
I'll provide the front and back cover,
she seemed to be saying.
All you have to do is hand me the pages!
Then came the flattery, which worked like a charm since I react to praise of any kind with a Pavlovian devotion to the person pouring it on. At some point money was mentionedânot all that much, but a larger sum than I'd ever dreamed of being able to earn from my writing and one that I pictured piled before me, a mound of cash.
I wanted to say
but I wasn't sure whether I could coax from my father enough stories, anecdotes, hazy recollections, or random chat to carry on a dinner conversation, let alone fill an entire book. How could I write a book about a man whose mystery was ever-present, whose mystery confirmed his being as a shadow confirms the person who casts it? What if trying to write it only revealed how little I knew, less a biography than a chronicle of noncommunication? What if I began it but couldn't finish? By saying
I'd probably end up proving to my father that his son was a bungler, undeserving of his trust all along. No wonder he hadn't shared very much! Not knowing about him was my fault!