Read The Bill from My Father Online
Authors: Bernard Cooper,Kyoko Watanabe
I assumed, was a verbal stitch meant to knit them together. It soon became clear that my father took it upon himself to draw Anna out during lapses in the conversation. Whenever he spoke, Anna fixed him in her melancholy gaze, fingers settling heavily on the stem of her wineglass. He, in turn, would prod her beyond her reticence, insisting she tell me more about an eccentric tenant, say, or a galling property tax. She didn't bring herself to speak so much as let herself be brought, remaining provocatively laconic and soft-spoken, a woman pleased, if not quite eager, to have her say. Only by asking direct questions did I find out more about herâshe'd once worked as an elementary school substitute teacher, advocated brisk walks, and read paperback thrillers in her spare timeâbut with each generic bit of information, I felt I knew her less. Her elusiveness, her tendency to retreat, went a long way in explaining why my father hovered by her side, his voice solicitous, tact unflagging. I'd seen my father buy and barter and scheme for things, seen him pull out his wallet and fan his cash, seen him wave his checkbook and MasterCard at clerks. But I'd never seen him want anything, want anyone, this much.
I could almost hear how my mother would mock him ifâGod forbidâshe'd sat at the table and witnessed dinner.
Mr. Sweep the Lady off Her Feet. Mr. Prince Among Men. Mr. Pitch the Woo
. But no sooner had I imagined these sarcasms than they turned into haunting compliments, accurate observations of the smitten man before
me. My father hadn't lost so much that he'd also lost hope; for better or worse (as he soon would vow) there were vestiges left.
What should I have done, Mother? Begrudge him love?
Even fewer people attended the wedding than the four who'd been invited. Anna's daughter, Pam, had been visiting friends on the East Coast and her plane was delayed in a snowstorm. Brian stayed at home with the flu. This made Anna's stately, gray-haired uncle Reggie and me the only guests. We introduced ourselves and wondered aloud if we were now stepuncle and stepnephew or just abruptly related strangers. We each complimented the other on his suit, then opened our jackets and compared the linings, as close to personal disclosure as we were likely to get. At some point during our conversation, Reggie and I arrived at a tacit understanding that it was up to us to impersonate a crowd and make the occasion as festive as two people who barely knew each other could. Before the ceremony began, we claimed one pew apiece on either side of the aisle, sprawling nonchalantly in order to take up the maximum amount of space. My father and Anna were sequestered offstage, and although they'd known for hours that only two of the four people they'd invited would be able to attend, I couldn't help but anticipate the sight of their crestfallen faces when they saw the dearth of guests firsthand. I swiveled around every few seconds, hoping to see the miraculous advent of a crowd: Sunday-school children streaming through the doors (it was Thursday) or last-minute parishioners taking their seats for the evening prayer service (it was two in the afternoon). No live or prerecorded music playedâa good thing, considering that even a three-piece ensemble would have outnumbered the guests, the notes of Papas Hayden and Bach echoing through the empty chapel.
While fidgeting in the pew, I thought about the years of isolation my father must have experienced while living alone in that large house, and before I knew it, my sense of his particular loneliness had expanded into one of those universal emotions the Germans probably have a compound word for, something like
. I was beginning, in other words, to understand why people cry at weddings. Which was odd, considering that up until that day, my reaction to the weddings I'd attended had been one of anthropological detachment, as if I were watching a PBS program about aboriginal courtship rites. The grinning imp who strews rose petals for the wedding procession to mash underfoot; the bride and groom force-feeding each other wedges of frosted cake; the best man's drunken tribute to the newlyweds, peppered with references to their former sexual escapades; the bride's backward bouquet toss and the subsequent stampede of single females. It's strange, ritualistic stuff, and watching people I loved get married had never made it less so. The financial and legal advantages of marriage are one thing, and I fully support them for homosexual as well as heterosexual couples, but Brian and I would no more have a big fancy marriage ceremony than we would throw a party where we sat on thrones and wore paper crowns and made people listen to royal proclamations about how much we enjoyed French-kissing and taking long walks on the beach, for which shared proclivities the guests would present us with expensive gifts. I knew exactly what my father meant when he'd told me that he and Anna didn't want to “do the whole schmear.” Still, I secretly believed that they secretly believed that the more people who witnessed their wedding, the more irrevocable wedlock would be.
Prompted by a cue I must have missed, my father and Anna emerged from one end of the stage and walked toward a suntanned priest at the other. Dressed in black vestments, the priest solemnly watched them approach. He squared his shoulders, cleared his throat, and opened the Bible he held at his chest. Rays of sunlight slanted through the clerestory window. Reggie and I sat absolutely still. Not a cough or creaking pew. Standing side by side, my father and his new bride were almost the same height, and for lack of other signs to go on, I told myself this boded well. Once they'd turned to face the priest, their expressions had to be guessed at from behind. There was the coiffed blossom of Anna's hair. Light rippled through her silk skirt as she shifted her weight (excitedly? impatiently?) from
foot to foot. The plump flesh of my father's neck bulged over the starched collar of a dress shirt he hadn't worn in years. A blush colored his bald head when he (timidly? calmly?) spoke his vows. The voices were theirs, but because I wasn't able to see their expressions, and given the empty, reverberating church, their “I do's” could have come from anywhere. Out of thin air. After the priest nodded his permission, the newlyweds merged for a consummating kiss, their eyes wide open, as if in surprise.
I found out about their divorce as abruptly as I'd found out about their marriage. I was sitting in a molded plastic chair at Launderland, watching my clothes swoop around with Brian's in an industrial-sized dryer and thinking about the first line of a poem by James Merrill:
Again last night I dreamed the dream called Laundry
I loved the rolling-overness of that line, its rhythm an exact match for tumbling clothes. It took a while before I noticed a copy of the
lying on the empty chair beside me. One headline read:
Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?
I may not have given the article a second look had my father's name not leaped from the text.
Attorney Edward S. Cooper's wife didn't take kindly to his decision to retire for the night in her bedroom, according to a $25,000 lawsuit Cooper filed yesterday. In fact, Cooper said his wife, Anna Hill Cooper, brandished a twelve-inch knife, punched him repeatedly, and smashed his eyeglasses while demanding that he get out. As a result, Cooper's suit contends, the attorney suffered “severe shock â¦ severe pain in his right ear â¦ is in fear of becoming totally deaf, thereby losing his right to earn his livelihood from his profession.” He also suffered a groin injury and a cut under his left eye. According to the Superior Court action, the assault took place on July 9, when Mrs. Cooper found her husband sleeping in the master bedroom
of their Hollywood home. The Coopers had occupied separate bedrooms since May 30, the suit said.
The newspaper, limp from moisture in the air, felt as soft as cloth when I picked it up. My father had been married to Anna for only a few months. Toward the end of their honeymoon in Greece, I'd received a postcard of the Parthenon. On the back he'd written, “This is where it all began.” He meant Western civilization, though in light of their divorce, the message struck a Sibylline note, as if the seed of their marital undoing had been planted in that parched and foreign soil.
He'd been hard to get hold of ever since their return, and unusually slow to return my calls. On the few occasions we spoke, he didn't report anything out of the ordinary. They were busy doing “this and that.” Pressed to elaborate, he'd say, “Eating. Sleeping. What people do.” His reticence wasn't unusual and, considering that he and Anna hadn't known each other for long, I figured their marriage would begin with a phase of daily, hourly adaptations. My father and his bride had a private life to relish and protect, and so I didn't pry.
It was difficult to reconcile the couple I remembered from the Brass Pan with the article's pugilistic wife and her slumbering husband. My father had been exceptionally deferential toward Anna that night at dinner, but no campaign of adoration or self-sacrifice would have compelled him, ever, to give up the comforts of his own bed. Lynn and her feminist friends would have said that terms like
were coined to flatter the sovereignty of men, and my father was no exception. It may well have taken a sneak attack to boot him from that room. If that's what really happened.
Despite his age, my father could rally a bullish strength whenever he felt threatened, his poor hearing and eyesight making him even quicker to react than he had been in the days when his senses were dependable. I'm certain he would have thrashed back with enough force to injure an assailant, especially if startled from sleep. And yet, judging from his story, or its omissions, Anna came through the row
unscathed. I balked at the “twelve-inch” knife, the kind of meticulously specific detail one often finds in exaggerations. The “groin injury,” whether true or trumped up to win him sympathy, may have been a bruise or a strained muscle, but because it was followed by the mention of “a cut under his left eye,” the wound became a jewel of allusion, implying that my father, peaceful and prone and defenselessly dreaming, had barely escaped a castrator's knife with his manhood intact.
It was hard for me not to admire his use of writerly devices, however debatable their literary merit or vengeful their intent. The repetition of the word “severe” to emphasize his shock and pain, the phrase “right to earn his livelihood,” as if he'd been denied a constitutional guaranteeâDad had crafted a malediction. What troubled me, though, was that he claimed to earn a livelihood from his profession when he had, in fact, been retired for years. Preposterous allegations may have been his stock in trade, but it seemed unwise to put in writing, and file in court, an assertion so easily disproved. This worried me not just because it was an outright lie, but because it was the kind of lie my father had once been sharp enough to catch before it damaged a client's credibility and called their other claims into question.
I glanced up from the
. The air was humid, dense with the lemon scent of detergent. How did the rest of the poem go?
â¦ the sheets and towels of a life we were going to share
The milk-stiff bibs, the shroud, each rag to be ever
Trampled or soiled, bled on or groped for blindlyâ¦.
Customers absently fed dollar bills into the change machine or folded garments still warm from the dryer. Sleeves and pants legs clung to each other, crackling with static when peeled apart.
I showed the article to Brian the moment he got home. He shook his head as he read it and said he wasn't surprised.
“Not surprised! I think it's incredible.”
“Oh, it's incredible,” he said. “I'm just not surprised.”
“Because past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.”
“If he's never been divorced before, how is this predictable?”
“He's no stranger to divorce. Or to marital conflict.”
“Don't you think people can change?”
“Not very quickly and not very much.”
“That's sort of pessimistic for a shrink.”
“No. It's optimistic. That way, I'm not disappointed by the rate at which people change.” His tie softly rasped as he tugged it through his collar. “Psychology is based on the idea that human behavior is made up of repeating patterns.”
“What about aberrations in human behavior?”
“They're part of the pattern.”
I followed Brian into the bedroom and dove onto the bed, sighing the sigh I had learned from my fatherâa melancholy too immense to vent in one breath. “Do you think I should I ask him about it?”
“If your father wanted to talk to you about it, wouldn't he have brought it up already?”
“What's he going to say, âOh, by the way, Anna came at me with a twelve-inch knife'?”
“Allegedly came at him.” He unbuttoned his shirt. “Would you want your father to know if I attacked you with a knife?”
I pictured Brian lunging toward me, a blade glinting in his upraised hand, his pretty blue eyes as homicidal as I had the imagination to make them. “No,” I said. “I wouldn't want to worry him. Besides, I'd be ashamed I'd had the poor judgment to trust you.”
“There's your answer,” he said. He stepped out of a pair of polished but innocuous brown shoes, then walked into the closet to hang up his pants.
I shucked off my clothes, tossed them onto the floor, and pulled the covers up to my chin. The sheets smelled like Launderland.
My father may have balked at inviting Brian to the wedding because he thought it would be harder to go though the ceremony in front of someone who'd been trained to detect trace amounts of doubt and self-deception. Little did he know how willingly my “mental-doctor friend” left his occupation at the office. Once Brian changed out of the tabula rasa of his work clothes, he allowed himself to be as mystified by human behavior as everyone else. Which meant, at the rate he was undressing, I had only a few more seconds to ask for his professional advice.