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Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe

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BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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“If the headline says,
‘Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?'
is my father Goldilocks, or one of the three bears?”

Hangers clanged. “He's Goldilocks.”

“Because?”

Brian reappeared in the nude. “Because the bear finds him in her bed.”

“But it's his bed, technically, so wouldn't
he
be the bear?”

Brian switched off the light and pounced onto the mattress. Before my eyes had adjusted to the dark, I felt his hands gripping my shoulders, his breath against my neck. “Everyone,” he whispered, “wants to be the bear.”

The next morning I phoned my father, having resolved not to mention his divorce unless he mentioned it first. Keeping mum allowed me to conduct an experiment of sorts. Now that I knew the truth, but he didn't know I knew, I could observe his methods of dissembling, could see how far he was willing to go to hide what had happened and spare himself disgrace. A purely imaginary disgrace, since the person to whom he'd make his admission (me) wouldn't think of him as disgraced so much as entangled, as all of us are, in a boundless net of human failings, which is history itself. But my father harbored a superstitious belief that truth floated in a misty limbo, dormant until it was spoken aloud. To say a thing was to make it true.

I let the phone ring at least a dozen times in case he was puttering around the house without his hearing aid, though once he'd taken it out, all the clanging bells in the world couldn't get his attention. I was just about to hang up when he answered, or rather, when someone picked up the telephone without saying a word. The silence was willful as silences go, a silence with heft and dimension. Whoever lifted the receiver meant to challenge the caller, to throw them off guard. And so I was certain I'd dialed the right number. He must have been expecting Anna. I was about to say hello when something stopped me. I'd always been at odds with my father's silence, and now, grasping the undeclared rules of the game, I found myself compelled to play along, even though he thought his opponent was someone other than me. We held our breath, kept absolutely still. I hadn't shaved that morning and I had to make sure the mouthpiece didn't grate against the bristles of my beard and make a sound like amplified sandpaper. Gripping the receiver too tightly might make it creak, but easing my grip might make it creak, too. There were strategies to master, advantages to gain. Not speaking demanded stamina. The silence from his end said,
I dare you not to talk
. The silence from mine said,
Try me
. No unretractable slips of the tongue. No oscillations of temper and regret. All that my father would never tell me about himself, and all that I would never tell him, fit snuggly into our speechlessness like a ring into a velvet box. Only a few seconds had passed, but who knows how long we could have gone on if his hearing aid hadn't squealed and broken my concentration.

“Hello?” I said.

“Oh. It's you.”

“What was that all about?”

“What was what all about?”

“You didn't say hello.”


You
did. It doesn't matter who says it first.”

“Well, actually, the person who picks up the—”

“You called to tell me how to talk on the phone?”

“No, I called to see how you are.”

He may not have heard me.

“How are you, Dad?”

“How should I be?”

“You should be—I don't know—telling me how you are.”

“My back is sore, for starters.”

“Did you pull a muscle?”

“I've been sleeping on the floor.”

“Oh, come on.”


You
come on. You asked why my back hurts and I'm telling you.”

“Why on earth would you sleep on the floor?”

“I toss and turn and it bothers Anna.”

I noted his use of the present tense. “What if you slept in another bed?” I'd almost used the
Herald
's phrase:
What if you “occupied separate bedrooms”?

“I can't fall asleep if I'm not in my room. You get used to things and then, if they get taken away, you can't get used to them.”

“Couldn't Anna sleep in another bed?”

“You try telling her.”

“I just can't picture you sleeping on the floor.”

“Why would I make something like that up?
I
don't write books.”

I let that one pass. “Is there something you can do to make your back better?”

“Yes,” he said. “Sleep in my own goddamn bed. But Anna won't have it.”

Why hadn't he mentioned this in his deposition? It was at least as damning a charge as attempted castration. Of course, he'd fought off that indignity while he'd submitted to this one like a dog who'd been banished from its mistress's bed, a humiliation my father would never make public, however dramatically it vilified Anna or illustrated the untenable conditions of their marriage. There was no way to tell this story without revealing its pitiful gist: the night may be cold and the mistress hardhearted, but the poor mongrel has no choice but to slink off the bed and curl around itself for comfort; the floor is its place in the scheme of things.

Had he actually camped out on the shag, or was this a fabrication
meant to turn me against Anna so that when he finally told me she was gone, I'd be glad to see her go? Other sons may have been better at sorting fiction from fact, but in defense of what may sound like extreme credulity on my part, let me say that my father tended to nod off in circumstances that could keep a narcoleptic awake. While he watched wrestling matches on TV, for example, with the volume full-blast, his lids drooped and his head tilted back, his nap undisturbed by the bellowing crowd or thunderclaps of colliding flesh. The sight of two wrestlers in a headlock was as soporific to my father as the sight of my father napping on the couch would have been to them. No matter how awake he seemed, how pointedly impatient, at any moment the chasm of a yawn might open and expose his gold molars.

As for his sleeping on the floor, I'm not saying it's possible, I'm saying it's not
im
possible. I feel compelled to phrase it this way because I've heard several friends fondly reminisce about how, when they were children, their fathers told them, “Anything is possible,” a fatherly promise that opened a door to the wondrous world as opposed to the lid of a Pandora's box from which leaped a headless chicken, or a bride who baked pies so her husband wouldn't touch her. For me, the words “Anything is possible” haven't served as a bolstering of hope as much as a warning to run for cover. The one hope I have when I hear that phrase is the hope that whatever happens next won't demolish the laws of cause and effect.

“The carpet has a thick underpad,” said my father.

“What difference does that …?”

“Some people sleep on wooden boards because they say its good for the spine.”

“You're saying you
want
to sleep on the floor?”

“I'm not saying want.”

“Because you're certainly entitled to sleep in your own bed.”

He cleared his throat. “I'm glad you think so. I sometimes wonder.”

A rare admission of fragility. “Dad,” I said, “everyone's entitled to sleep in their own bed.”

“That's ridiculous!” he snapped. “What the hell did you call for, anyway? Did you call to tell me something important, or to spout some meshuggener philosophy about who's entitled to what?”

Then I understood my mistake. The first remark—“You're entitled”—elevated him above others. The second—“Everyone's entitled”—lumped him with the hoi polloi. If everyone was entitled to what my father was entitled to, then everyone was entitled to sleep in his bed. Which meant that Anna was also entitled. And if—bear with me—Anna slept in my father's bed, then my father would be forced to sleep on the floor. There hadn't been a note of ridicule in my voice, not a half note or a demiquaver, but after the sounds issued from my mouth, traveling the distance from my phone to his, they still had to spiral into his ear and reach the receptors of his hearing aid, which transmitted vibrations to his cochlea, which started a synaptic chain-reaction until he grasped my words verbatim. Then turned them into the mocking comment he (wrongly) suspected I'd been thinking all along:
Sleep on the floor for all I care. That's where you belong!

“Hello?” said my father.

“I'm listening,” I said.

“That's funny,” he grumbled, “'cause I haven't been talking.”

How did he finally tell me they'd divorced? He never did. Anna, he said, was visiting her daughter. Substitute teaching. Showing a house. Indisposed. It was up to me to add up the long column of her absences until I realized she was gone for good. Then never mention the woman again. Having read about their divorce in the newspaper allowed me to play along without getting lost in a maze of ambiguity. The facts were “written in print,” as my father would have said, and as long as I didn't depend on him for facts, I could nod at his improvisations, responding with a calm “I see.” Instead of resisting his attempts to steer the conversation away from Anna, I'd swerve to an entirely different subject with such disarming agility and speed, my non sequiturs rivaled the master's. My refusal to probe
at first relieved, then pleased my father, as if by swallowing falsehoods whole, I'd at last done something to make him proud. The greater his appreciation, the more I excelled at complicity. He wasn't deceiving me, I began to believe, so much as obliquely hinting at the truth.

He never pursued litigation against Anna. His petition for divorce ended up among thousands of accounts of marital discord housed in the County Hall of Records—an enormous vault of a building not far from his old Spring Street office—never to be read again.

She left behind several possessions. Blueprints for a Mar Vista subdivision were stored in a drawer. The spines of paperback thrillers announced their titillating, sideways titles from a shelf in the upstairs hall. A few of her dresses still hung in a closet, running the gamut from gray to navy blue.

These abandoned belongings remained exactly where she left them, and one could reasonably argue that, by failing to either return or discard them, my father was the one who'd left them behind. When I first came to visit him after their divorce, the sight of Anna's things reminded me how capricious and fleeting people's allegiances can be. Eventually, however, her possessions became a common sight, blending into the rest of the house. By keeping her belongings out in the open and subjecting them to his diligent neglect, my father was making them disappear without so much as having to touch them.

One possession of Anna's convinced me that there had been a mitigating circumstance in the demise of their marriage. The medicine cabinet in the master bathroom contained a bottle of Tofranil with Anna's maiden name printed on the label. I'd discovered it one day when my father asked me to bring him one of his blood pressure pills. The word Tofranil sounded familiar; I'd overhead Brian talking with his colleagues often enough to associate the suffix
nil
with the power of drugs (or at least with the promise of drug companies) to nullify depression. Brian would later confirm that Tofranil was among a class of antidepressants known as tricyclics. In fact, he was able to close his eyes and recite the drug's side effects from
memory, the way he could a Joyce Kilmer poem he'd learned in grade school—
I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree
—though this recitation, with its grim rhythm and incessant symptomology, was closer in spirit to Sylvia Plath: dry mouth, difficulty swallowing, decreased libido, tremors, fatigue, neuropathy, hallucinations, nightmares.

As I held the bottle of Tofranil, the memory of dinner with my father and Anna underwent a swift revision. She still sat across from me in a red leather booth, but her weariness, a weariness I'd attributed to middle age, deepened into a resignation that age alone couldn't explain. Her eyes were slower in meeting mine. Her handshake was leaden in retrospect. How could I not have noticed the gravity and drag of depression?

From there, I extrapolated days and nights of Anna's inertia, and my father pulling out all the stops to lighten her mood. If I've portrayed Edward Cooper as a humorless man, allow me to correct that impression. He knew his mischief forward and back. The tension that usually churned in his stomach, knotting muscles and causing heartburn, was sometimes funneled into kibitzing, which, as any kibitzer knows, is an art much harder to master than it looks. You have to walk a line between antics and madness. You have to let your hair down, if you have any left. You have to march in a one-man band, harmonica firmly clenched between your teeth. While flooring the Cadillac on the freeway, captain of all that humming tonnage, my father was likely to burst into song. “Clang, clang, clang, went the trolley,” he sang, and “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy.” He bellowed every note for effect, conducting an invisible orchestra with hands that should have been gripping the wheel. And when the Chevron attendant filled the tank, Dad would clutch his stomach and groan, “I'm getting gas!”

The problem was, he expected you to play the role of tireless sidekick. You had to humor him for humoring you. It was tit for tat. Itch my back and I'll itch yours. At first he'd succeed in cracking you up, but gales of laughter are hard to sustain. Your cheeks begin to ache. Your guffaws grow hollow. My father watched closely and
measured your reaction, and anything less than a robust chuckle raised a red flag. “What's the matter?” he'd ask midjoke, the punch line hanging in the air like a boulder.

It was one thing for me to egg him on; this jaunty father intent on my reaction was a wish fulfilled. But Anna may have seen herself as hopelessly stony compared to her husband, neither pleased nor piqued by his nonstop vaudeville. I can see her smiling wanly at his gags, sorry to be such a “stick in the mud,” as my father tended to call nonlaughers. (Unless it was he who wasn't laughing, in which case the joker was “a pain in the ass.”) The further Anna sank into the doldrums, the more zealously my father would prod, trotting out puns and knock-knock jokes, refusing to lose his wife to despair, to botch a second chance at marriage, no better than the lovelorn schmucks he'd fought for in court. It was Anna who swallowed the Tofranil, but the drug etched pathways in both their brains, altering their futures one neuron at a time.

BOOK: The Bill from My Father
5.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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