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Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe

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BOOK: The Bill from My Father
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“Rooster, you mean?”

“Chicken,” he corrected, annoyed that I might have missed the big finish, might have been distracted when water turned to wine.

“Chickens don't crow,” I told him.

“What?”

Tricky business, repeating a statement that belonged, I realized too late, in the “back talk” category. I scrambled to match oinks and tweets and moos with the appropriate animal, only to discover that the correspondences were more debatable than I'd realized. My rooster remark sounded arrogant now, and possibly untrue. “Do roosters crow?” I found myself asking.

The projector lit my father's face from below. His chin and brow were islands of light, his eye sockets deep, unreadable. “Supposing a chicken doesn't crow,” he said. “Then this one's more of a miracle.”

*  *  *

“Remember the headless rooster?” I asked.

My father leaned toward the microphone. “Chicken,” he insisted, then sat back in his chair.

“But the chicken supposedly crowed, Dad. And chickens—I'd stake my life on this—don't crow. They cackle. Or cluck?”

The querulousness in my voice, and the irritation in his, had been preserved for thirty years.

“Look,” he said, “if the client says a chicken crowed, the chicken crowed. Mrs. Green heard it. So did half the people who were at the press conference that day. Maybe they were in a religious state. That kind of thing has never happened to me personally, so I wouldn't know. All I know is that Mrs. Green buys the chicken from a local butcher, takes it home for dinner, puts a pot of water on the stove, and when she goes to pluck the thing, it
stands up and starts strutting around the kitchen like this was just another day on the farm. She's standing there gawking when a voice comes out of nowhere and tells her to name the bird Lazarus, and she hollers, ‘Praise the Lord.'” Here my father lifted his arthritic arms as high as he was able, the jumpsuit stretching taut across his belly. “She gets on the phone to call her friends, who call their friends, and so on, and pretty soon people are showing up at Mrs. Green's house in droves, lining up just to get a look at the thing. Being your enterprising type, she starts charging admission. Can you blame her? She sees a brass ring and she grabs it. That's America.

“Eventually the S.P.C.A. gets wind of what's going on and Stanley Moffatt, the San Bernardino District Court judge, summons her to appear in his chambers and calls what she's doing ‘a sideshow' or some such prejudicial remark he had no business making. He orders her to hand Lazarus over to the county veterinarian for ‘the advancement of science,' whatever the hell that means. Mrs. Green hired me to keep the S.P.C.A. from taking her faith away, was what it amounted to. My job was to prove that the animal was happy, that keeping it alive wasn't your usual cruelty like chaining a dog to a tree or letting a horse go without oats. What we had here was a case of the government interfering with an individual's religious freedom, a clear breach of the Constitution.”

He straightened his back, regal in his wing chair. “I ask you,” he said, pounding the chair's upholstered arm, “would Mrs. Martha Green be on the wrong side of the law if she was charging money for people to see a chicken with
two
heads, or if she was selling fried chicken dinners? Would a judge order her to cease and desist, to surrender her property, under those circumstances? She might need a business permit, but that's a moot point because the S.P.C.A. got involved, not the small business bureau. The woman believed she was doing something good, and I believed she believed it. The bird went ahead and died not long after Moffatt's ruling, but even dead it meant a lot to people.”

“Okay,” I said, afraid to interrupt a story that spilled forth with
uncharacteristic ease. All the while, the shiny strand of magnetic tape was saving his speech for posterity, every word awaiting transcription. There might be a book here after all, I guardedly told myself, and it struck me that the editor from New York—
my
editor—possessed the gift of literary foresight. How many other careers had she influenced with her deceptively offhand suggestions?

I composed my face into what I hoped was a receptive expression.
Go on,
it invited him.
I've waited a long time to hear you talk. A lifetime, precisely
.

My father paused. “What's with the face?”

I touched my cheek to see if the attentive face I felt from the inside was the one that showed. It wasn't, but I'm pretty sure it had been before Dad asked.

“If she'd told me Lazarus was a goddamn camel and he recited the Gettysburg Address, I would have done my best to back her up, and there would have been witnesses coming out of the woodwork to say they heard him with their own two ears, and the next day there'd be a headline in the
Herald: ‘Camel Quotes Lincoln.'
That's the kind of world we live in. Don't kid yourself and think it's not. I did what I needed to do to win. I heard what I had to.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“For Christ's sake, if you don't believe the chicken crowed, I'll prove it! It's written in print!” His defensiveness took me by surprise until I realized that at that point in our visit, and in my tenure as his son, sense was relative. He'd caught a hint of equivocation in my eager agreement. His joints cracked as he rose to his feet. “I've still got my file on the case. Say whatever you want about your old man; he keeps good records. That scrapbook's in here, too.” He reached into each of the cubbyholes lining the breakfront's desk, searching for the key that opened the drawers at its base. His hand came back empty again and again. “The key's got to be here somewhere.” He lifted a pile of mail to see if the key was underneath. Weeks' worth of bills were sloughed to the floor.

“I'll take your word for it, Dad. Really. Sit down and tell me more.”

He patted the pockets of his jumpsuit. Nothing. “A key doesn't just get up on its own and walk away.”

A long pause during which the two of us considered the possibility that, yes, a key isn't supposed to do something so rash, but it might anyway. That's the kind of world we live in.

Next on the tape come woody
thunk
s accompanied by the rattle of brass latches that won't give up their grip; my father tested the drawers to see if any were unlocked. Mother had called this massive piece of furniture a “conversation piece,” though I'm sure my father's tirade against it—“Goddamn Fort Knox!”—wasn't the kind of conversation she'd had in mind. He lowered himself onto his hands and knees and began combing through the matted shag to see if the key had fallen nearby.

I pushed myself out of the couch—as enveloping as ever—and brought the tape recorder closer. I let the microphone dangle from my arm, near enough to pick up his voice but not so near that it might cause him to become self-conscious. I'd begun to understand the documentarian's paradox: the witness alters the event he's observing by the act of observation. If I hadn't been there pressing him to remember the past, my father would be sprawled contentedly on the couch, tossing salted nuts into his mouth and watching
Wheel of Fortune
. Instead, he was scrounging for a key while I hovered over him. The khaki jumpsuit clung to his body and made him look like a plump, ungainly baby, though his neck was creased with an old man's wrinkles and his breath came hard. I switched off the tape recorder and set it on the desk. “Dad,” I said, holding out my hand, “let me help you up.”

My father looked up from the flatland of the carpet. The sight of me seemed to strike him like a blow. His forehead furrowed, his face grew pale. I was the only son he had left. Bob had died of Hodgkin's at twenty, Richard of colon cancer at thirty-one. At the age of fifty, Ron's heart stopped. With each death my father cried his son's name, and without the son to nod in recognition, those cries continued to carry on the air, never quite fading.

My father refused my outstretched hand. He wouldn't have
taken my brothers' hands either, had they been there to hold them out. The man's dominion had always been simple:
we
were indebted, never the other way around. Worse, then, when the son who offers assistance is the last, a dark-eyed composite of heirs long gone, compliant sons who'd asked fewer questions, learned by example, and followed him into the field of law. Whatever thoughts they harbored toward their father, they kept them quiet as sons should. Silence was a kind of respect. They'd never think to write a book—pages, he'd suspect, of evidence against him. Yet there I stood, the son who'd been spared. A watchful boy unlike the others, yet too much like the others to bear.

He practically climbed the brass latches in his determination to get up on his own. The breakfront shuddered with his weight, porcelain courtiers and crystal aperitif glasses chiming on the shelves above him. With majestic effort, he managed to stand. He grabbed the tape recorder off the desk and shoved it into my hands.

“What did I …?”

“A son doesn't help his father up.”

“A son …?”

“A son doesn't help his father up.”

“What does a son do?”

“A son helps his father look for the key. Now get out of my house.”

When I was a boy, misbehaving in the Cadillac's backseat, my father would suddenly swerve toward the curb, lurch to a stop, and order me to get out in some unfamiliar part of town. “You can live
here,
” he'd announce, not bothering to look around and see where we were. It was elsewhere, of course, and any place that wasn't home illustrated elsewhere's disadvantages. The streets, if they were peopled, were peopled by strangers. Awnings cast their scraps of shadow. Buses roared past and spewed exhaust. “Ed, please,” my mother would groan. While my father brooded behind the wheel, I'd grip the door handle and consider making him sorry with an act of flagrant obedience: I'd disappear into the city and lose myself faster and more irretrievably than he could banish me. I'd beg for food, live in
Griffith Park, make the clothes on my back last forever. I'd survive outside his good graces, without his money and without his love. But the plush seat was comfortable, and the idling car rocked like a cradle, and soon the world was slipping past the window as the Cadillac merged with traffic.

“Get out of my house,” he repeated, pointing toward the front door.

While the walls still enclosed me and the roof hung overhead, I peered into my father's face, the face I'd always studied to see if I was good or bad, right or wrong. The face by which I took my measure.

I should have helped him look for that key. I should, for once, have used my powers of observation to a practical end. What lapse of consideration, what selfishness, prevented me from hunkering down and searching with him? Those drawers were crammed with artifacts, evidence of his history. Wasn't that what I'd come for?

A son doesn't help his father up
. His words reverberated in the sudden flood of sunlight as I opened the door, on the flagstone walkway that led to the street, as I started my car. They had about them a biblical ring, as if an eleventh and ultimate commandment had somehow escaped my attention till now.

My literary mission was a bust. The tape recorder (I'd probably never use it again and couldn't take it back because I'd lost the receipt) lay on the passenger seat along with a cassette that chronicled a few sound effects produced by the living room furniture, an account of a headless, supposedly crowing chicken, and what my father claimed were his first words—perhaps the last I'd hear from him.

I was thirty-three and still living in the neighborhood in which I'd grown up, fifteen minutes away from my father's house. Stucco apartment buildings had risen on lots where postwar bungalows once stood. Billboards for safe sex and neon signs for businesses like the Tanning Institute had started to crowd the eastern end of Hollywood Boulevard. The streets where my father threatened to leave me as a child—
See how long you last
—had become the ones in which I lived, and driving through them that day seemed like fresh exile. I resolved, as before, to fend for myself, and swore his absence
wouldn't matter.
Mr. Divorce
my mother had called him, her sarcasm having clarified, over years of marriage, into a feeling as strong as love. How quickly I'd thought of an alibi when she'd handed me his boxers. My innocence was as laughable as his.

While stopped at a red light, I reached a verdict: the man was a bastard. But no sooner had the light changed, no sooner had I stepped on the gas, than I remembered how, at Sunday breakfast, my father would heap mounds of strawberry jam onto slices of rye. One for me and one for himself, again and again till the two of us were bursting. He'd excavate an entire jar, down to the dregs, where the spoon struck glass. When my frugal mother clicked her tongue, he'd pat the empty chair beside him. “What do the pennies matter in the end? Who are you saving your pleasure for?” She'd glance at us uncertainly, then sit as if she'd been waiting all her life to plunge into that very chair, to squander food after years of scrimping. He'd hand her a slathered slice of bread, careful not to spill one glossy drop, though now and then a dab of jam—I saw it happen—would fall into his lap.

My Father's Jumpsuit

A month after my father kicked me out of his house, and through a series of circumstances I'll explain momentarily, I ended up wearing his khaki jumpsuit to a garden party that took place on a warm July afternoon. Embedded in the polyester were whiffs of his minty soap and cologne, phantom clouds of talcum powder, plus a musky odor that was all his own. While I drank rum punch and shook people's hands, I inhaled pungent blasts of Dad.

In olfactory terms the jumpsuit overwhelmed me, but in fact I stood a good a foot taller than my father and the fit was snug. My wrists jutted from the sleeves and the pants legs ended above my ankles. Ordinarily, I'd never wear a polyester jumpsuit in public, or in private for that matter, especially one as uncomfortable as this. It's misleading to call polyester a fiber since the word implies a weave of separate threads through which air can circulate, whereas the sticky sensation of actually wearing it is like being wrapped in what Webster's defines as “a thermosetting polymeric resin used in the manufacture of plastic.” Just scooping a mound of potato salad onto my plate caused me to perspire as though I'd rolled a boulder uphill. I could feel my pores dilate and my cheeks flush and I understood what it might be like to be an arthritic old man whose slightest physical effort exacts, for all the world to see, a price in sweat and breathlessness.

BOOK: The Bill from My Father
11.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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