Wednesday, December 16, 2009

You're Gonna Die

At times, I entertain.
These times require an endurance of alcohol, usually.
Some nights, there are folks sleeping in my apartment when I wake up.
I have floor space and a futon, so it is not the worst place for them to crash.
I have extra pillows.
I can always offer them one of my (now dead) Aunt Zelma’s quilts if it is chilly in the sunroom, where the futon is; or on the floor near the inactive fireplace that still allows a draft in from the outside.
Mine is nothing better than a crash pad unless one is curious enough to land in my bed.
That’s another story.

Not too long ago, I awoke to hear another’s breathing in my place and remembered that an esteemed member of our St. Louis society had taken me up on an offer to sleep off a good session of drinking at the Royale, one of our favorite establishments. I snapped to for a bit and remembered the situation, got up to hit the can, splash some water on my father’s face (the one I see these days after such nights) and I went back to bed.
Eventually, we both were ready to move on and I drove him back to his car.
I don’t remember. Maybe we had breakfast. Regardless, I returned to the fabulous emptiness of my hovel to sleep some more and listen to nothingness on the radio but more NPR babble about the economy or some static-laden drivel about yesterday’s game or some long-forgotten AM pop-chart sing-songy. I did this as an attempt at sleep and probably drifted off for a few increments of 40-minute nods. Seems like I had to get up later that day and shower, get some errands done and then run off to work. At any rate, it wasn’t until a day-or-two later that I noticed that my Dad’s paperback copy of THE GODFATHER was sitting on a towel that I had placed on a flat space in my bathroom.

I have retrieved certain items from my Dad’s collection since he died a couple year’s ago.
Most of them are books that he referred me to when we were all younger. Some of them I have read and have captured my mind. Some of them, I gathered as a commemoration of his spirit and efforts as a teacher and historian. There are still other items that I took along because I wanted to revisit our times of watching television and studying the institution and religion that is Baseball. I have his VHS copy of GOLDFINGER, for instance. It is an interesting enough movie of its genre and I revisit it at times, but it is certainly not my favorite. I have it on the shelf because it reminds me of Dad and that time from which he emerged: that pre-Vietnam War era during which it still seemed possible to dash about the globe in a tuxedo to uncover some unruly details about some foreign cads before retiring with a cocktail later that night...and a honey to spill it on.
I don’t know. It is a comfortable place to reside, I might say. Seems less ugly than what the CIA was up to at the time or got involved with later, yes?
I see photographs of Dad from back then. He was a few years out of the Army with his Bachelor’s Degree and a new teaching job and my Mom, his wife…and then me.
He was sporting the slim ties and the suits. He had the short black haircut and as a young, but experienced teacher who stood six-foot-one, I’m sure he made an immediate impression on everyone at the secluded community in and around Brussels Community High School. He went on to teach high school for some 30 years, had two more kids, bought a house and eventually became a published author of American history.
As I grew older, our journey into the world of Baseball became more intense and he became the proud father of a kid with a lively fastball and a place on a very good junior-college team.
I had taken over writing high school basketball reports for the local paper and carried an interest in journalism into college and further to university, though never felt the final urge to commit myself to that style of writing, especially after moving to St. Louis and becoming interested in more, shall-I-say, exotic forms of writing and influences of punk rock, late-nights and politics outside of the press box parameters of a sports writer. Then I blew my elbow out and that was the end of organized athletics for me.
I could feel him wishing that I’d stay with the game, become a teacher and coach or a newspaperman, but it didn’t feel right to me. He would urge me to look towards the military for training and guidance and a doorway into society, but that surely did not feel right to me and I wriggled away from his urgings. We became more distant, with less common ground to bond our conversations. Eventually, I would become completely disenchanted with Major League Baseball and corporate journalism. I was downright grumpy about society and hesitant to become involved in its machinations. I struggled to pay the bills, but kept a simple, inexpensive lifestyle and simply hoped that he’d either come to some conclusion and suggestions for a better path for me. The rest of the time, I walked and ran and caught buses to nothing jobs and hoped that something better would appear on its own.
The verses of Jello Biafra sounded more truthful than anything I was reading in the newspapers, but did not hold sentiments I felt like I could discuss with my Dad.
He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and survived ten frustrating and ugly years of a spiral to death: literally a mindfuck for him and the rest of the family. By the time the day of his funeral came, I was completely relieved that his suffering was over and happy that part of my Mom’s burden had been relieved. I had grieved long before his death. All the normal stuff passed through my mind, but the bitch of it all for me was that he had been chopped down early and had to endure the final decade of his life without really writing. One summer day, we drove down to Little Rock to visit with one of his mentor’s, Dee Brown, the author of BURY MY HEART AT WOUNDED KNEE.
It was a wonderful visit, but the gravity of the occasion was that that much older man had far more mental clarity than my Dad. Dad was still driving in those days, but would miss exit signs and it was a major relief to get home. His mind had gone.
Still, that did not light a fire under me to write. I have written much more since his death than I did while he was alive, but I attribute that to the people I have met, heard read and read. There seems to be only the urgency of an occasional inspiration.

Such an inspiration was the opening of the novel left there on the reservoir lid of my toilet. I have seen the movie a dozen times and the sequels at least half-as-many times, but have never read Mario Puzo’s novel, THE GODFATHER. The part of the book that grabbed me the other day is the story about Johnny Fontane, whose singing career had gone down the toilet after he left his wife—an act which deeply disturbed his Godfather, Don Corleone. Johnny had gone on to lead “a footloose and fancy-free” lifestyle and had eventually found that he was losing his singing voice due to the smoke, booze and lack of rest. He is scared to death that he is at his end and he knows only to come to the mercy of the Godfather to help him get a sought-after part in a Hollywood movie.
You know the rest. Yeah, you know: horse’s head in the bed of the unwilling director. Yep.
Much of the rest of Johnny’s story isn’t included in the movie, but it all boils down to the fact that he is coming to face the facts, he ain’t getting any younger and no matter how many “pieces of ass” he’s bagged (yeah, besides all the killing, there is lots of fucking going on in this book: it is as racy as all that…witness the joke on P. 181 about fucking Lassie!), he is feeling like he needs to clean up his act and set his course straight.

You come to these milestones or crossroads in life. They jump up and punch you right in the face. Sometimes they rip the world out from underneath you. The ankles, knees and shoulders bark with every movement. Even daily exercise doesn’t fix it back the way it used to be. Hangovers last a full day or two days. You don’t recognize the person in the mirror at first glance if you don’t look yourself in the eye.

I was fortunate to be gifted Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel THE ROAD recently for my 46th birthday. I had thought of reading it, because I like to read the book before seeing the movie and I really wanted to see it at the Tivoli, so I was sure to finish that Percival Everett novel that I was reading, so that I could get through McCarthy’s book before the movie left the theater.
I love an apocalyptic tale where man is finally getting his ass handed back to him after having fucked everything up and the poetic prose of the book added to a feeling of late-night reverie as I glided through page-after-page. Finally Henry Miller’s prophecy that the air-conditioned nightmare would someday sputter to a stop had come true in this meditation. Sure I was reading the book while weary from bartending shifts, but the reading was so effortless and the verse flowed with such ease through the barren land of the father’s and son’s plight that I didn’t feel its force until late in the book.
I am not a parent, so I didn’t feel a biological kinship with the father and his need to guard his son, his lifeblood. I did however feel something change inside me when the father finally died on that cold beach. Something of my pain surfaced and I did miss my Dad again. It was a relief, and I’ll tell you why.

About a month ago, I was really struggling. I was at odds with my own plight and in doubt about how much longer I wanted to make my living on my feet and away from the possibilities of a more contemplative life. I had been drinking plenty and when one night, when I finally got a night free to stay home, I made a big pot of chili and ate far too much of it. It was quite late before I finally went to bed, but I had to go while I was still full and was too uncomfortable to sleep. I was tossing and turning for hours, but finally began dozing off for minutes at a time only to awake with a startle.
At some point I dreamt that my Dad was standing over me and lightly poking me in the shoulder. He was affected by Parkinson’s and I was asleep on the couch in the house in which I was raised. It was as if he missed me and just wanted me awake. But later that morning, while it was still very dark, I dreamt that he had come to me again. This time he was not alive in my dream. I could feel him as cold and black and standing over me in my bedroom.
Yeah, ya think?

I’ll go on to say that I did see the movie a couple days ago and if you haven’t and you want to, go do it and come back to this later or else it may be ruined for you.
Image Macall Polay.
© 2929/Dimension Films.

First off, Viggo Mortensen has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his part in the movie.

Like I said before, I didn't relate to the novel for the "family ties" of the whole thing. I liked the ending of the book because it didn't end simply with the boy being "adopted" by another family. I suspected that somethings would be left out of the film and of course I was right. One of my FB friends was commenting that all the "good guys" were dressed like scummy street punks and all the "bad guys" looked like hillbillies. Except for that sole black man and the family that takes the boy in at the end, who looked like they wandered off the set of THE GRAPES OF WRATH and that their name was the Joads.I walked into the theater half expecting the still-intact nuclear family in the end to come walking up the beach in North Face apparel, though, so I'll take the bedraggled folks from the dust bowl family and allow for some sort of suspension of belief.
The NRA liked the scene, I'm sure. "Hey look, Bubba! Old boy got him some shotgun shells and him AND his kin is still alive and takin' in orphans. God Bless America!"

I almost busted out laughing when the cart thief turned out to be a black dude, but it was too unfortunately sad, especially since it calls for Viggo to go all Dirty Harry on him. I have NO idea why they made that choice. That was the only black character in the movie, right? Very odd choice.

I noticed that they didn't bother to depict the scene with the baby on the spit. Probably saved themselves a ratings slip there. I did notice that the trip to the ship, the loss of the gun and the theft of the cart was all consolidated into a few moments.
The most important part of the book to me is the poetic reflection of these people in such desperation to stay alive in a world that offers very little except the immediate and apparent knowledge that death is imminent and humanity is bound to rub itself out in climates of such fear. The sadly adoring scenes of lust for a can of Coca-Cola and Cheetos and Jack Daniels and vitamin water definitely cheapened the movie for me. Another friend was equally disturbed by the product placement. I thought to myself as I was driving home, "Why no Twinkies? Those things will never rot". But I think that was a scene from The Simpsons, wasn't it?

My favorite part of the book is the very end. Not the new, "stepmother" who is "so happy" to take the boy in after his papa has died, but the last paragraph:

"Once there was a brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could seem them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimple softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes.
Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery."

That's the fucking book right there for me.

"Humanity, you never had it from the beginning."
Charles Bukowski from Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969)

1 comment:

kg said...

Thanks for sharing your relationship with your dad. Don't think I ever knew it that well from our chatting.