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Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe

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BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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“Are we thinking it over?” the editor asked excitedly.

“Are we ever,” I said.

On the other hand, it would be foolish to refuse her offer because … well, because money was involved, but also because the rest of my family was gone forever and Dad was all I had left, though I wasn't sure what constituted “all.” Or “Dad” for that matter. I knew so little about him that I wasn't even sure what I didn't know. It bothered me that I was more familiar with the personal history of a local
TV station's silver-haired newscaster after reading a profile about him in the Sunday paper (his parents came from Ireland and he majored in journalism at UC San Diego) than I was with the personal history of the man who raised me, ate at our table, paid our utility bills, and slept in the same bed as my mother. Were we father and son, I sometimes wondered, or merely strangers who answered to those terms? Writing the book would require us to spend time together for a series of interviews, and if I posed the questions just so, these forums for measured revelation, with their civil rules of back and forth, might be just what I needed to get to know him.

I told her I'd give it a try.

The next day I called my father and explained that a publisher in New York wanted me to write a book about him. Writing was a hobby as far as he was concerned, a fine if inexplicable pastime like jigsaw puzzles or model planes. He believed I'd someday give up my literary ambition and “find myself,” which is to say find myself working at a legitimate job. I'd been teaching freshman composition at a local college for five years, and when I first told him that my course load consisted of three classes a week, his eyebrows bunched together and he said, “You only work three days a week?” In fact, I had two classes on the same day, so I was on campus
two
days a week—a clarification I didn't make. I considered explaining how much time I spent preparing lectures and grading stacks of exhaustingly foggy essays and how difficult it sometimes was to see the novels and poems and short stories I loved become little more than tributaries draining into the Mighty Syllabus. But there would have been no point in arguing. Nothing short of building a pyramid with my bare hands would have struck my father as a line of work more strenuous than his own. This might have been understandable had he worked on an assembly line or a construction crew and found his son's bookishness lazy and effete, but we're talking about a lawyer who'd glided downtown each weekday morning in a white Cadillac, his fingernails buffed to a high gloss, his briefcase embossed with interlocking letters,
ESC,
for Edward Samuel Cooper. My father worked hard, and I saw in our occupations a number of similarities—rows of
books lining our shelves, hours spent presenting a story—whereas he saw none.

“The publisher might pay me good money,” I told him. I thought the financial angle would make a good impression, though the “might,” I realized at once, had been a strategic mistake, proof of my dubious business sense.

“When did you want to stop by?” he asked.

And that was that. Not,
Who's the publisher?
or,
Why a book about me, of all people?
Not even,
How much money do you think you might make?
His sheer incuriousness could be infuriating, but I wasn't about to alienate my subject by getting angry at him, at least not before I'd extracted a few anecdotes and cashed the check for my phantom advance. We made a date for the following day. Three
P.M.
sharp.

In all fairness to my father, I have to admit that I was also relieved by his lack of curiosity because it meant I didn't have to tell him about my essay in the literary review. In it I'd mentioned—alluded to, really—his marital infidelities, and I didn't think his anger would be appeased by my trying to explain that (1) I hadn't written about him to air a grievance, or (2) I took it as a rule of human nature that sexual longing propels people in all sorts of unexpected, not to mention extramarital, directions, or (3) the tone in which I portrayed him was sympathetic and forgiving. He didn't need my sympathy or my forgiveness, and I wasn't up to an elaborate fan dance of self-justification.

The truth, or one sedimentary layer of it, was that my father didn't know I knew about his various affairs. Worse, if he asked me how I'd found out about them, I'd either have to make up an excuse or tell him that I'd learned of them one day when I came home from high school. I stepped through the back door to find my mother standing in the middle of the kitchen, waving above her head what appeared to be a white flag. She muttered what sounded like, “He's a heel,” or, “He'll get his.” I set my schoolbooks on the counter and walked closer, resisting the impulse to touch her because she seemed too feral to be consoled. It was four o'clock in the afternoon, but she
still wore the bathrobe she'd put on that morning, balls of Kleenex stuffed in a pocket. Without saying a word, she thrust toward me what I realized wasn't a white flag after all but a pair of my father's boxer shorts. I took them automatically, as if I'd been handed a glass of milk. Then she folded her arms across her chest. The bearer of a terrible patience, she waited to see what I'd say or do.

I rubbed my thumb across the cloth, assessing it by touch as I'd seen her do with bolts of fabric. The cotton had been thinned by frequent bleaching. The elastic waistband had lost its snap. With those observations, I'd pretty much exhausted every detail of my father's boxers, except for the obvious blotch my mother alleged was lipstick. I finally forced myself to examine it while keeping my expression as blank as I could. The stain was reddish (though the popular shades of lipstick at the time were tropical pinks and orangy corals) and not so definitively kiss-shaped that it could be interpreted, beyond a doubt, as an imprint of lips. It streaked across the placket toward the crotch, a sight as otherworldly as a comet. I'd long ago realized that my parents must have had sex at least four times during their marriage because they gave birth to me and my three brothers, but I couldn't bring myself to picture them doing the deed, which would have made it hard to look at them ever again without picturing it. I found it easier, relatively speaking, to imagine an unfamiliar woman performing oral sex on my father, because she'd be a faceless stranger instead of my mother, whose hazel eyes were bright with fury, her hot breath wafting toward me.

Studying my father's underwear in her company seemed too odd and intimate an occurrence to actually be happening. Light seeped through the kitchen windows, dimming into that nameless phase between late afternoon and early dusk. The wall clock ticked. The refrigerator shuddered. Cotton spilled over my open hands. I felt as if I'd entered a dream—my mother's or mine, it was hard to tell—in which a taboo had been dredged from the unconscious. I had to gather the will to speak, carefully, the way one gathers shattered glass. When I suggested, half in earnest and half to get the whole thing over with, that it might not be lipstick at all but strawberry jam, my
mother kept repeating, “Strawberry
jam
?” She wanted someone—even her son—to verify the evidence and share her outrage.

Perhaps she thought my remark was a way to defend my father or convince her that she'd jumped to the wrong conclusion, when what I'd meant to do was protect both of my parents (and myself) by making that stain a petty mishap, soluble in soap and water. Until that day I'd been one among a high school full of teenagers who believed that adults lived largely in a world of convenient illusions, yet all it took was my mother chanting
“Jam?”
to make me see that it was I who was holding on to the illusion that my parents' marriage was a good one, and furthermore, that thinking anyone could live a life exempt from such illusions was the biggest and most common illusion of all.

Had my father known I'd written about—or alluded to—his infidelity, he certainly wouldn't have let me interview him for a book. And so I kept quiet about why the editor from New York had called me in the first place.

The tape made a faint hiss as it spooled from reel to reel, like the sound of waves breaking in the distance. “Tell me more about the boardwalk, Dad.” He sat back in the chair and closed his eyes. He folded his age-spotted hands in his lap and sighed because remembering was work. From within the depths of recollection my father asked, not unkindly, “What do you want from me? Seagulls or something?”

Until he retired, at the age of seventy-five, my father worked on the top floor of the Continental Building, twelve stories of weathered brick in downtown Los Angeles. A frosted-glass door stenciled with his name and profession stood at the end of a long, dimly lit hallway, which made it seem like a door of last resort. He specialized in divorce law. Even as a child I sensed that our family's prosperity bore some connection to the dissolution of human relationships, the money in my father's billfold payment for a grim yet necessary service: unburdening people of each other. In the 1950s, two decades
before California's no-fault divorce law, a couple needed to prove they had reason to be granted a divorce, that in fact they had no recourse but to seek one, and so my father became adept at inflaming his clients' sense of betrayal, at making their perfectly ordinary spouses seem insufferable and cruel, the couples' love a blunder from the start. By the time I was old enough to grasp what he did for a living, my father had earned a reputation for handling cases whose tawdry details often made it into the pages of the
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
. He collected his clippings in a black scrapbook that lay atop our coffee table. I'd mull over those strips of newsprint for hours, trying to decipher the how and why of love gone wrong.

The Case of the Baking Newlywed
told of Mrs. Beverly C. Cleveland, a woman who cooked continually during the first ten days of her marriage, filling the couple's small refrigerator with an uneaten banquet of pies and roasts and casseroles. Had I not read otherwise, Mrs. Cleveland would have struck me as a typical, even ideal, homemaker, since cooking was a skill that husbands seemed to covet in a wife. What had Mrs. Cleveland done that was any different from what my mother, and my friends' mothers, and the mothers on TV did every day of their lives: chop, mash, fry, whip, grate, freeze, and reheat? I imagined the Clevelands' warm apartment perfumed with simmering dinners. According to my father, however, Beverly Cleveland's culinary marathon was a ploy to avoid her “wifely obligation.” In the article he referred to Jake Cleveland as his “kissless client,” whose “connubial crisis” was due to the couple's ten-day “hell-moon,” the hellish specifics of which weren't mentioned in print. The newspaper photograph showed Mrs. Cleveland wincing from the glare of a flashbulb and raising a hand to shield her face from the camera—a mug shot of shame itself.

At ten years old I was too young to articulate, but not too young to sense, that somewhere beneath this case lay Beverly Cleveland's avoidance of sex, or at least of her husband. Jake Cleveland hadn't been photographed for the article and I couldn't help wondering if he was ugly. No matter if he was the Creature from the Black Lagoon; the verdict fell in his favor, and this put his wife on par with
the thieves and forgers and other criminals whose pictures also appeared in the
Herald
. “Don't be an idiot,” said my father when I asked if there were laws about cooking too much food, and if mother could get arrested for it.

While thumbing through the scrapbook, I could never quite decide whether my father acted as an agent of fairness, or of petty revenge. Just being in the position to make such a decision gave me a heady sense of omniscience, since my father—who laid down the law in our house—was suddenly subject to my judgment, instead of the other way around. I mean omniscience literally, for in trying to determine whether my father's livelihood was noble or corrupt, I sometimes envisioned his cases as though I were floating invisibly near the courtroom ceiling, up where lightbulbs hummed in their sockets and the California flag drooped from its staff. Below me, an avuncular, black-robed judge sat in a kind of private balcony and watched as my father and another attorney tossed blame back and forth like a hot potato.

Another headline read,
Case of “the Captive Bride” Ends in a Blaze of Poetry
. Here, my father defended the right of a Mr. and Mrs. Nunez to keep their sixteen-year-old daughter, Florence, virtually locked in her bedroom until she turned eighteen, forbidding her to live with her husband, Peter Ramos, with whom she'd eloped. To prove his devotion, Peter stood on the sidewalk outside the Nunez house day and night, reciting the love poems he wrote for Florence, which he read loudly enough for her to hear through the walls. Worried that his clients might have to listen to lovesick couplets for the next two years, my father applied for a restraining order that would, if not silence the poet, keep his verse at a distance. “The boy won't let up with the moon and June,” was how he put it to the reporter. “Peter may be standing on a public sidewalk, but he's no better than a peeping Tom, what with the way he's invading my clients' privacy.”

Peter, however, saw nothing but nobility in his persistence. Florence was his muse as well as his wife, and his longing never flagged in her absence. He hired Arthur Marcus, an attorney who, in a semantic counterattack, dubbed Peter “the banished groom” and
claimed that Florence was being “held captive” against her will. (I imagined her in a prison cell with a vanity table and canopy bed). Mr. Marcus immediately summoned Florence to appear in court, where she could testify to Peter's honorable character and prove herself mature enough for marriage.

Dad answered the writ of habeas corpus with a poem of his own:

The court lacks jurisdiction
To make an order stern,
The paper filed by Peter
Requires no return
.

BOOK: The Bill from My Father
10.35Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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