Robert Douglas Friedman
The Actor in the Family
By the spring of 1969, my sister and her first husband Mike the absurdist playwright were married, having eloped during a Zen spiritual retreat in Vermont. They were also living in our basement. Mike brought along his waterbed and his exotic plant collection. The plant collection included a Venus flytrap, assorted cacti, a bonsai tree, and a dozen healthy specimens of what my parents later realized was marijuana. They did not handle the realization well.
There were many other new additions to the basement decor. Mike was a collector. He had American Indian pottery, Bolivian sculpture, Chinese blankets, a Persian rug. He had recordings of wolves howling in the Canadian wilderness, which he played at full volume on the nights when my parents were out. The neighbors were not happy, but my sister and Mike seemed to be. I think the basement life suited them.
It certainly suited me. My bedroom started to resemble the basement. I bought incense, black light posters, a collection of arrowheads. I read Siddhartha. I became concerned about relevant issues. I was outraged by the war, racial inequality, pollution, the bomb, authoritarianism, repression, the plight of coal miners in West Virginia. I was deeply disturbed by the path that our country had chosen. I was twelve years old.
My age was the one thing about which my father and I agreed.
“You’re twelve years old,” he told me from the overstuffed depths of his living room recliner. “You’re too young to make any valid judgments about the state of the world.”
I put down my Social Studies book. “I’m old enough to judge when someone’s condescending to me.”
“A big word. Can you spell it?”
My father chewed his unlit cigar. That cigar was a perpetual prop for him. He used it the way a comedian will sip from a glass of water before delivering a delayed punch line.
“Not only can I spell it — I can spell it while knocking your smart ass right through that wall,” he said.
“At least you admit I’m smart.”
He clipped off the soggy end of the cigar and slipped the remaining stub back in his mouth. “Only if you think it’s intelligent to piss off the guy who pays for the roof over your head.”
“I didn’t ask to be born.”
“Good. I’m not sure what my answer would have been.”
“Stop it,” my exasperated mother said from her armchair, where she sat attempting to knit. “You’re a father and son, for Christ’s sake.”
“Don’t remind me,” I said, too quietly for anyone to hear.
We were watching television. My father, as usual, had commandeered the remote control and was compulsively changing channels. Stations flickered past like stops viewed from the window of a train.
“And could you please stay in one place for more than a second?” added my mother. “You’re giving me a headache.”
“Stand still and die, that’s my motto. But there’s not a damned thing on worth watching, anyway.” My father dropped the remote control onto the end table. He grunted and rose stiffly from the recliner, almost losing his balance as he stood. He paced across the room, one arm held against his lower back and his other arm extended towards the ceiling, which he could easily touch. “Damned back. When the hell is he going to get a job?”
My mother unraveled her fifth attempt at a scarf and glowered. She had no idea how to knit, but kept trying, anyway. She claimed that it calmed her. “He’s finding himself.”
“If he had a job, he could locate himself for eight hours a day. What’s wrong with working, anyway? His wife is doing it. The poor kid is busting her butt waitressing.”
My mother put down her knitting. “Give him time. He’s an artist.”
“He’s got nothing but time. I thought he was a playwright.”
“Well, that’s a kind of artist. And artists need time.”
Battle lines were drawn, and my mother was clearly on Mike’s side. In part this had to do with his ivy league background; he had graduated from the Yale School of Drama, class of ’67, and my mother was impressed. Also, one unforgettable night in New York, Mike had introduced her to both Arthur Miller and Edward Albee.
“That boy is going places, you mark my words. He just needs the freedom to create.”
My father snorted. “Let him create a paycheck once in a while. Then I’ll have more respect for his creativity. And you, don’t you have studying to do?”
I closed my book. “I finished it.”
“You’ve got a whole dictionary to memorize. Get your ass upstairs and do it.”
Until the arrival of our basement residents, I was considered a kind of spelling prodigy. I’d won first prize in the annual school spelling bee the previous year — the youngest student in the history of my school to do so — and was expected to repeat my victory in the upcoming contest.
It was an expectation that I once took very seriously. Every night I studied my unabridged dictionary for trick words: arctic, bocce, cologne, dichotomy, embouchure, etc. But spelling seemed empty to me now. The world was going to hell in a hand basket; who cared about the correct spelling of centripetal? Would it matter after the collapse of civilization as we knew it? And wasn’t the whole idea of competition divisive and unhealthy, just as Mike told me? I was suddenly confused.
A steady stream of visitors began to arrive in the basement. Though I was never invited to these gatherings, I had long since discovered how clearly the heating system in our house conducted sound. I would close my bedroom door, sit with my ear pressed to the duct, and happily eavesdrop.
Sometimes I understood what was being discussed. The war in Vietnam, for example, was always the first subject to arise. More often than not, however, the conversation seemed to take place in some strange new language consisting only of first names. Dick, Spiro, Malcolm, Martin, Jimi, Janis, Kurt — the list went on and on. I was fascinated.
My father was not.
“Bums, eating me out of house and home,” he said, overturning an empty box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies and shaking out the crumbs onto a bowl of ice cream.
It was snack time. We were in the kitchen.
“I visit someone and I bring something,” he continued. “Cake, danish, a bottle of wine, maybe. Something. I don’t eat their last cookie. This one young gentleman — and believe me I use the term loosely — comes marching across my new grass today in his army boots and hands me a flower. Peace, he says, the earth is singing a joyful tune. That’s not singing, I tell him, that’s the sound of my lawn screaming in agony. Didn’t you ever hear of a sidewalk? He just shakes his head and disappears into the basement. If I had an ulcer, it would be acting up. What are you doing down here, don’t you have homework?”
“I finished it.”
“What about math? What did you get on your last math test?”
“Well, why didn’t you get a hundred? Spell ambivalent.”
“Smartass. Remember, this spelling stuff is serious business. I’ve got a space reserved on the mantle for your second trophy and I expect to see that space filled. Where’s the orange juice?”
My mother set down her cup of coffee. “Stop pressuring the boy. Next to the milk.”
My father peered into the refrigerator. “So where’s the milk? I’m not pressuring him, I just want him to do what I know he is capable of doing. I don’t want him to turn out like those fruitcakes downstairs.”
“They’re not fruitcakes, they’re just young. They’re finding themselves.”
My father snorted. “Doesn’t anyone know where the hell they are anymore? I know where I am, I’m standing here like an idiot looking for the milk so I can find the orange juice, but I don’t see either one of them. The problem is that none of them work for a living. Everything would be different if they did.”
My mother stood up suddenly, knocking her chair backwards. “You mean they’d be happy and calm like you? Move over, are you blind or something? Here, here’s the orange juice. They’re kids, they’re finding their way. Be thankful you can give your daughter and son-in-law a nice home meanwhile.”
My father picked up the chair. “And could I have done that without working? We’d still be in lovely Newark, New Jersey with the looting and the riots if I hadn’t worked. Do you know how many refrigerators I had to sell to buy this house? How many washing machines? You work. That’s how you find your way. That’s how you get the things worth working for. Never mind, forget it, I’m going upstairs to find myself a nap. Wake me for supper. Hey, you — spell pragmatic.”
“Close enough. Good boy. Keep it in mind.”
Good boy. I’d spent my entire life hearing that phrase. A good boy, our Dougie. Straight A student. Never gives us a minute of trouble. A good boy. Not wild, like his sister Annie.
My wild sister. Sometimes at night, eavesdropping through the duct, I overheard hushed arguments about her. I knew that she had almost flunked out of college, that she wouldn’t shave her legs or wear a bra, that she dated Christian men. I think my parents were actually relieved when she eloped with Mike. He may have had long hair and a beard, but he was Jewish, and came from a good background. Maybe now she would settle down.
It didn’t seem to be happening that way, though. And I was tired of being called a good boy.
Of all our basement guests, the one who disturbed my father the most was Al Silverberg. There were numerous reasons for this, but the most pressing, I think, was that my father and Mr. Silverberg were contemporaries. The young hippies my father could to an extent deal with — they were lazy, they maybe didn’t have too much wattage upstairs, they needed a firm hand to whip them back into shape — but this old hippie completely threw him.
Mr. Silverberg, for his part, seemed vastly amused by my father. He seemed vastly amused by everything. He was a tall man with a long gray beard and even longer gray hair. He smoked a pipe, and upon request could blow perfect smoke rings. He had learned magic somewhere, and could produce coins from ears, scarves from sleeves, and once, literally, a rabbit from a hat. He could whistle the 1812 overture while walking across the front yard on his hands. I was convinced that he could levitate if the mood struck.
None of these skills impressed my father.
“So the man can make an idiot out of himself in fifty different ways? This is big news? Can he pull a job for my son-in-law out of that hat? Now that would impress me. Anyway, what’s he doing hanging around here with all these kids? A man his age, a Newark boy, a veteran no less? He should know better.”
The Newark connection particularly upset my father. Al Silverberg was a Newark Jew. Even worse, he was from the Weequaic section, which meant that his family had money. My father, who grew up on the poorer side of the city, couldn’t understand how a boy from the Weequaic section ended up this way.
We were in the den this time. It was a few days later. My father sat in his leather recliner. It was the same model as the living room recliner. My mother sat in an armchair identical to the one in the living room. My parents knew what they liked and stuck with it.
I stood in the doorway, waiting to be thrown out and sent back to my room. I figured the den was the only room I hadn’t been thrown out of so far.
“He had all the advantages,” continued my father. “I would have given my right nut for some of his advantages. How could he waste it all?”
My mother snorted. “What do you mean, wasted? The man is a respected New York director. He’s going to direct your son-in-law’s play and make him famous.”
“Respected? By whom? If he’s so respected, why does he dress in rags? Why can’t he afford a haircut? And as for making my son-in-law famous, I’d be satisfied if he got him — ”
My mother turned to me. “I just can’t imagine what that next word is going to be, can you, Douglas? Let’s see … can you spell vocation?”
My father shook his head, reached up from the chair, and clasped my shoulder. “You may be my last hope,” he said. “Now get your sorry ass back to your room and keep studying.”
“Why? Civilization is falling apart and you want me to study for a stupid spelling contest.”
“Now you’ve got it. That’s exactly right. But I don’t only want you to study for it – I want you to win.”
“Winning isn’t everything.”
“Nope, it’s the only thing. Just ask Vince Lombardi.”
“The whole idea of winning and losing is a capitalist fallacy.”
“So humor an old man and his capitalist fallacies. Isn’t there room for compassion in the revolution?”
My mother laughed. “Oh, please. Such self pity?”
“Self pity? Because I want what’s best for my son?”
“No. Because you want what’s best for you.”
My father’s name was Samuel. My mother’s name was Susan. My sister and I had long since titled their ongoing dialogue. We called it the Sammy and Susie show.
By now I had abandoned my preparations for the spelling bee. Mike took charge of my literary education, and I spent my evenings reading Orwell, Huxley, Vonnegut, Hesse. I didn’t understand much of what I read, but I could never bring myself to admit this to Mike. I would shake my head knowingly as he critiqued Brave New World or Cat’s Cradle, frowning every once in a while to illustrate my concern about the relevant issues being discussed.
I was also neglecting my schoolwork. My grades dropped. Warning notices arrived in our mailbox. Since I brought in the mail every morning, this was not an immediate problem; I simply threw the notices out. School, Mike told me, was interfering with my education. I was determined to correct the situation.
I was receiving mail of another kind as well. Several months earlier, I had sent away to the Happy Times Greeting Card Company in response to an advertisement on the back of a comic book. The advertisement said that I could make hundreds of dollars selling greeting cards to my family, friends, and neighbors. All I had to do was fill out the coupon below. They would forward me two hundred boxes of greeting cards, which I could in turn sell for five dollars a box. They would only charge me $2.50 a box, so I stood to make a huge profit. Most importantly, I would not be billed for sixty days.
I sold twenty boxes — five to Mr. Kennedy up the street, and fifteen to my Aunt Esther in Brooklyn — and hid the rest in my closet. The money was spent on my new bedroom decorations.
The Happy Times Greeting Card Company was now threatening to sue me.
It was during a discussion of 1984 that Mike decided I should star in his play. I had, he later told me, a “captivating expression of both innocence and despair” on my face, and it occurred to him that I was ideal for the role.
My mother was thrilled, my father stricken. “That’s great,” he said. “Perfect. It’s just what we need – an actor in the family.”
My mother was darkly silent, as she had been for the previous half hour.
My father — who was horrified by silence of any kind, and especially by that of my mother — at last made a tactical retreat. “Okay. Fine. He can be in the play, but only, I repeat only, if it doesn’t affect anything else. He still has to do his chores, and his grades better stay the same, because if I see any change, any change at all, Mr. Olivier will be dropped from the cast like a hot potato.”
My mother smiled triumphantly. “Don’t worry,” she said, ruffling my hair, hugging me, “my little genius can do anything he sets his mind to.”
“Yeah? Then how come he misses the pot when he pees at night?”
One thing the little genius couldn’t do was understand Mike’s play. Mike explained that it was about the alienation of modern man as seen through the eyes of a child, but that didn’t help much. Mostly, it seemed like I was supposed to wander around on stage looking sick.
The strange part was Mike’s claim that I gave him the idea for the play. One day I was telling him about a carnival ride called the “Inferno” when he clapped me on the back and said that was terrific, Dante’s Inferno as a carnival ride, what a brilliant idea, he was going to get started on it right away. And so that’s what the play was about, with the ride stopping at different levels of hell, each representing some aspect of modern life (the war, the collapse of the inner city, pollution, etc.). My job was to buy a ticket, climb on board, and then act alienated and ill each time the ride stopped at a new level.
I was pretty sure that I could handle the ill part — I had feigned illness many times to avoid school — but I had no idea how someone acted alienated.
Mr. Silverberg laughed and told me to watch my father for a while.
I now entered what became known as my theatrical phase. This involved wearing a ten-gallon hat, fringed leather vest, and boots while reciting my lines to imaginary audiences in different rooms of the house. According to Mike, I symbolized an archetypal free spirit of the American frontier past encountering the wounded souls of the American present. According to my father, I looked like Roy Rogers.
“Get along there, little doggies,” he said. “Come on, don’t be sitting there on your saddle sores, we got forty more head of cattle to round up before the big hoedown.”
My father whooped and then galloped out of the den. My mother told me to ignore him. “He doesn’t understand art,” she said.
Neither did I. At least not as it was being practiced by Mike and Mr. Silverberg, who were now having what they termed “creative differences.” Mike favored a more naturalistic approach, while Mr. Silverberg felt that artifice would make a more powerful statement. Or something like that. Anyway, several weeks passed before they ironed it all out and we were ready for our first rehearsal.
This took place in the living room. My mother and I cleared an open space by pushing the couch, the end tables, the cocktail table, and my father’s recliner against the far wall. To add relevancy, I taped newspaper headlines about the war around the room. My mother and sister baked peanut butter cookies. It was a family effort.
This did not include my father. The rehearsal was scheduled for four o’clock, long before he usually returned home from work. It seemed best.
At five-thirty, a purple and green Volkswagen van with flowers and peace symbols painted all over it finally pulled into the driveway and discharged about a dozen passengers. The men all had long hair and beards and looked just like Mike; the women all had long hair and no bras and looked just like Annie. Mr. Silverberg arrived shortly afterwards in a cab.
He wasn’t alone. A teen-aged girl followed as he loped across the front lawn. She was wearing tie-dyed jeans and a peasant blouse and had a sort of gentle half smile on her perfect face.
Mr. Silverberg clapped my shoulder. “Greetings to our young star. Here’s someone who I know really wants to meet you, my daughter, Cheyenne. Hope you’ve got those lines memorized. See you inside.” He brushed past me.
I held out my hand. I was trying not to stare. “Pleased to meet you,” I said.
“Drop dead, dickweed,” she replied.
Acting alienated became much easier after that. I had no trouble with my lines at all, and everyone agreed that I was conveying just the right quality required by the role. The peanut butter cookies were a big hit. The cast was enthusiastic and complimentary about the play, and Mike glowed. He and Mr. Silverberg were in the process of congratulating each other on a successful rehearsal when the sound of a crash outside brought everything to an abrupt halt. A moment later my red-faced father was standing in the doorway.
“Who’s the Goddamned moron who left the emergency brake off on that rolling piece of crap out there?” he said. “And which one of you pillars of society is going to pay for my new fender?”
“That your father?” Cheyenne asked.
I shrugged. “Yeah.”
“I like him.”
“So you actually live here, huh?” Cheyenne said.
We were in the upstairs hallway. She had requested a tour. The fender debate still raged downstairs.
“Yeah, for the past few years. We used to live in Newark.”
“I thought people only lived in houses like this on television. We did, too. Lived in Newark, I mean. I don’t remember it, though, I was only like five or something.”
“Where do you live now?”
She kicked open my bedroom door. “This one yours?”
“No shit. Not bad. I could get used to this. You need some plants, though. In the Village. For the time being, at least. I think we might be moving again in the summer.”
“Who the hell knows? Depends on where my father gets his next teaching gig. I’ve lived all over. I was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, that’s how I got my name.
“Good thing you weren’t born in Cleveland.”
“That’s pretty funny. I like a man with some wit. Why don’t you give me a call in like maybe five years, okay? After that we lived in California, and then Wisconsin, and then Massachusetts. Massachusetts is where I first dropped acid. It changed my whole point of view.” She stared into my room. “Maybe a fichus. I like your posters.”
“Sorry I called you a dickweed.”
“So am I.”
“Yeah, well, it was nothing personal. I just didn’t feel like getting dragged along today. My father doesn’t understand that I have my own life. I mean, I’m seventeen years old. I’m not a child anymore.” She lit a cigarette, slowly exhaled. “I’m thinking of running away again. I’ve done it a couple of times. I almost made it to California once. This cowboy gave me a ride from Denver. He was okay, except he kept asking me to pose for these pictures. I don’t think I need to elaborate.”
Elaborate, I thought, e-l-a-b-o-r-a-t-e. Fichus, I thought, f-i-c-h-u-s.
“Don’t say anything to my father about my running away, okay? He’d be really pissed. Last time he had like an all points bulletin out about me. I don’t know what he was so worried about, I can take care of myself. Promise you won’t say anything?”
She hugged me. I could feel her loose breasts against my chest. “My father was right, you are an interesting kid. Of course, he ought to know, he’s like a big kid himself. At least your father acts sort of like a father. You weren’t bad in the play today, by the way. Get rid of the hat, though. You look like Roy Rogers. Well, it sounds quiet down there. I guess I better go. Thanks for the tour. Don’t forget to call me in five years. Try California, I’ll probably be there by then.”
It was quiet downstairs. It stayed quiet as Mr. Silverberg and Cheyenne and the cast of Mike’s play filtered out our front door, and it remained quiet after they were gone.
Silence reigned for the next week. My father came home late from work each night and disappeared into his den, hidden by a haze of cigar smoke as he read his newspaper. He had taken to both chewing and smoking his cigars, so you could see the glowing tip rise and fall as you walked past. Annie and Mike kept a low profile in the basement, emerging only for food and water. My mother cooked endlessly. Cooking calmed her. The big freezer slowly filled with dozens of prepared meals, all carefully labeled and wrapped in aluminum foil.
I wasn’t sure if I preferred the silence or not. I once read a book about life on a submarine crew during WW II. According to this book, the silence before a depth charge exploded was the worst sound you could ever hear. I kind of understood the idea.
The ominous calm finally broke one day at school when my name was announced over the intercom system. This had never happened before. I was told to report to the principal’s office, which had also never happened before. The classroom broke into whispers and jeers, as it always did in such cases. Until now, I was always one of the whisperers and jeerers.
Not this time. I was shaken but remembered to smile and act cool, like everyone else did when they were summoned.
The outer room of the principal’s office was empty when I arrived. A lone, stone-faced secretary sat primly at one of the desks.
“Hi,” I said, trying to keep my voice calm and even. “I’m Douglas—”
“Yes,” she answered, “I know who you are.”
She pointed to the closed door behind her. “In there.”
“Yes. Just open the door and go on in.” She looked almost compassionate for a moment, which scared me more than anything else. “And good luck.”
I had no choice. I went in.
The submarine crewman was right. The silence is the worst part. I found a great deal of silence inside the principal’s office. Everyone in the room was silent and staring. This included my Algebra teacher, my Physical Science teacher, my English teacher, my guidance counselor, and the principal himself. Most silent of all was my father, who sat at the head of the conference table glowering.
My father was the first to break the silence.
“Okay,” he said, “he’s here. Now let’s kick the shit out of him.”
It went downhill from there. I honestly don’t remember much of the discussion. I do remember wondering what Mike would say about authority and the abuses thereof. I also remember thinking about how stupid I’d been not to expect the school to contact my parents about my declining grades and unsigned warning notices.
What I remember most, though, was my father on the ride home from school. The meeting produced a number of results. I was to spend extra time after school with each teacher to work on special assignments. I was to have extra homework. I was no longer to appear in Mike’s play. And, by my father’s request, I was not to compete in the spelling bee.
That request stunned me. And his silence in the car unnerved me much more than the shouting I expected.
I swore to myself that I would never join a submarine crew.
My father drove for a few blocks and then pulled the big Chrysler into an empty parking lot. He stopped the engine. I could hear it ticking as it cooled. He didn’t say anything.
Minutes passed. They were probably only minutes.
“Well?” I finally asked. “Aren’t you going to yell at me?”
He turned. “No,” he said. His voice was quieter than I’d ever heard it.
“Why not?” I demanded. “I screwed up. I deserve it. You should yell your head off.”
He shook his head. He looked sad. I’d never seen him look sad before. “I’m not going to yell at you, Doug.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I guess I don’t understand much anymore either,” he said softly.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean things are different than when I was a kid. The times are different. Your sister and her husband and their friends – well, I don’t really understand them or what they want. Maybe I do understand a little sometimes. They’re young. It’s a new world. But you – I thought I understood you. Why did you do these things? Why did you lie to us – to your mother and I?”
“I don’t know.”
“That makes two of us.”
This was much worse than being yelled at. “I just – everyone always tells me what to do. I just wanted to do what I wanted to for once.”
“And you wanted to do what? Flunk out of high school like your father?”
“I flunked out, Doug. I never got a diploma. I’m a high school dropout. My father died and my mother was working two jobs to try and keep us all together. I had to get a job, too. I tried to work and go to school at the same time but I couldn’t keep my grades up and finally I flunked out. Then I was drafted. I don’t talk about it. I’ve always been ashamed of it.”
“I thought you went to college.”
“Everybody does. I lied.”
“I never knew that.”
“I never wanted you to know.” He paused, smiling to himself. “But you. I always knew you would graduate and then go to some good college. You’ve got the chances I didn’t have. And you’re smart. I knew you wouldn’t throw those chances away. Until now.”
I stared at him. My heart was pounding. This wasn’t fair. It was serious and painful to hear. I’d spent the last year thinking of my parents as comical characters. This wasn’t comical.
“So I’m not going to yell at you, Douglas. But I do want you to understand how disappointed I am in you. And in me, if I helped cause this.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s mine. You didn’t do anything.”
“Maybe your mother is right. Maybe I push you too hard. Maybe we both do.”
“It’s my fault. I’m sorry.”
“Well, that’s something. Taking responsibility is something.”
I longed to hear the roar of that big Chrysler engine starting.
“Let’s go home,” said my father at last.
Flash ahead a few weeks. My grades are rising. Reports from the school are positive. I’m being called a good boy again. I’m even back in training for the spelling bee. And then one afternoon my mother receives a telephone call from a lawyer representing the Happy Times Greeting Card Company.
“Jesus,” says my father that night. “Maybe we should save everybody the time and effort and just have him locked up now.”
My mother does not disagree.
It’s my sister who saves me from a life behind bars.
“I spoke to Tim,” she said, “and I think we can work this out.”
We were seated at the dinner table together – my parents, Annie, and I. Mike was in the basement meditating. He always meditated during the family dinner hour. I was naive enough to consider this a coincidence.
“Who the hell is Tim?” my father asked.
My sister ran a hand through her long dark hair. “Tim is the lawyer for the card company.”
“And you’re on a first-name basis with him?” my mother asked.
Annie smiled. “I am now. Tim and I spoke for quite a while. He’s actually a very nice man.”
“So what did this nice man say?” my father asked. “Have they readied the dungeon yet for my son, public enemy number one? By the way, the words ‘nice’ and ‘lawyer’ never go together.”
My sister frowned. “You’re always so negative, Dad. He was perfectly reasonable and friendly. We just have to sell all the cards we can and send them the money.”
“Did I miss something here? This is called doing us a favor? The kid owes them over five hundred dollars.”
“I know. Tim told me the amount.”
“How long did you talk to this Tim?” my mother asked.
“Not long. An hour or two.”
“An hour or two?”
“I told you – he’s a nice man.”
“I’m assuming that call is on my phone bill, not Tim’s?” said my father.
“What did you talk about for that long?” asked my mother.
“Oh, California, mostly. Tim lives in San Francisco.”
“California,” my father said, shaking his head. “Naturally. It couldn’t be a local call.”
“Would you two listen for once? I have this situation worked out. A bunch of my friends are going to sell as many boxes of cards as we can. We’ll send the money to Tim and that will be that.”
My parents looked at each other. “Well,” my mother said, after a brief silence, “it’s a plan, anyway. Douglas, I assume you’ll be participating in this sales effort?”
“You bet your ass he will be,” said my father.
“Come on,” Annie said. She ruffled my hair in a big-sisterly way. “It’ll be fun, little guy, right?”
Fun wasn’t the word that sprang to mind. But I was strongly in favor of anything that took the heat off me. It beat doing hard labor on a chain gang.
“Right,” I replied.
Mike was not happy. I heard him arguing with my sister that night through the heating duct. The sound quality was not high, but certain words leaped out during their lengthy conflict.
Mike used the phrase “capitalist crap” to describe the card sale. He used the phrase “fascist pig” to describe Tim the lawyer. And he used the word “collaborator” to describe my sister.
The next words I heard were spoken by my father – much more clearly, since the master bedroom was only a few doors down the hall. Apparently, my father was also listening through the duct.
“Looks like there’s trouble in paradise,” he said.
I found my sister sleeping on the living room sofa the next morning. Annie was bundled up in an old blanket that she must have dug out from the back of the linen closet. Her pillow was on the floor, along with one of the sofa cushions. I smiled. My sister was always a restless sleeper.
She looked just like she did when I was little. I remembered how she used to lie on her back, hold my hands, and then lift me up by pressing her feet into my stomach. It was like flying.
I was heading towards the kitchen for breakfast when I heard her whisper.
“Hey, little brother.”
“Hey,” I whispered back.
“What are you doing up so early?”
She yawned and stretched. “Bet you couldn’t sleep. Bet I’d win that bet.”
“Are you okay?” I asked suddenly.
“Me? Of course. Why?”
“You’re on the sofa.”
“Oh, that.” She paused for a moment. “Okay, maybe I’m not okay. No, I am. Thanks for asking. Can you do me a favor?”
“Can you put this blanket back and then keep quiet about where you found me?”
“Quiet about what? I didn’t find you anywhere. I don’t even know your name.”
She laughed. “Attaboy.”
She slipped quietly into the basement just as my father emerged yawning from the master bedroom.
The great greeting card sale occurred the following Saturday. Another VW van – this one painted in swirling psychedelic colors that made my head spin – pulled up in front of the house and discharged what looked like a hundred people.
Annie took immediate charge of the group, barking out orders and assigning neighborhoods.
Amazingly, Mike participated. Just as amazingly, the sale was a huge success. Maybe all those suburban homeowners bought cards so they could get the hippie invaders off their front steps.
My parents were happy. My sister was happy. Even Mike seemed happy. Everyone was basking in general happiness – at least until the first phone calls arrived from disturbed neighbors.
The neighbors were disturbed for clear reasons. The greeting cards were not distributed in their original form. They now included these additional greetings:
- Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command
- Make love, not war
- War is not healthy for children and other living things
- Fuck war
Mike was the prime suspect. But there was no way to interrogate him. Mike was gone.
“What do you mean, gone?” my father asked.
“What do you mean, what do I mean? I mean he’s gone,” answered my mother. “And keep your voice down.”
“He just left?”
“Does anyone know where?”
“Yes. He’s on the way to a Navajo reservation in Arizona.”
“That’s what the note said. He’s going to some kind of spiritual festival.”
“And when is Geronimo planning to return?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is he coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
This discussion was occurring in the dining room. Annie was in the basement. She’d finally stopped crying and drifted off to sleep.
Within a year, my sister would be living in San Francisco with Tim, the lawyer for the Happy Times Greeting Card Company. But she didn’t know that yet, of course, or have any idea how much I would miss her.
“Jesus Christ,” my father said. “I go off to work and this is what I come home to?” He turned to me. “You see?”
“This is your hero. This is your big influence. This is the man you listen to instead of your father. A man who leaves his wife a note.”
“Keep your voice down. He has to get his head together,” said my mother.
“If he was here, I’d hand it to him on a silver fucking platter.”
“Maybe that’s why he left.”
My father bit through most of his cigar. “So now it’s my fault? I drove him away?”
“You didn’t exactly make him feel welcome. You could have tried. You could have found some common ground. You both have an interest in theatre, for instance. You minored in drama. I watched you in those plays. Beckett. Pirandello. I remember, even if you don’t.”
“Excuse me,” I interrupted. “Drama?”
“Your father minored in it at Rutgers.”
I looked at him. “Rutgers?”
“And what are you staring at?” my father asked.
“You minored in drama at Rutgers?”
He hesitated. “Yeah. Big deal. I did go to college. Guess you never heard of the G.I. bill. I had to find some way to inspire you. I couldn’t watch you throw your chances away.”
“You made it all up?”
“Pretty good, huh? And you thought you were the only one around here who could act.”
I almost stormed out of the house. I would have a few months ago. But I was older now.
“Yeah, that was pretty good, Dad. Oh, well. All the world’s a stage, right?”
Mike had taught me that line from Shakespeare, before he left without saying goodbye. Mike had also taught me not to trust him. My father was now teaching me the same lesson.
“You lied to your son?” my mother asked.
“Lie? No. I told him a motivational anecdote. Right, Dougie?”
“That’s my boy. I knew you’d understand.”
I did understand. Nothing could be trusted but spelling. I studied harder than ever. I memorized countless words. Neither of my parents could stump me. I was in the spelling zone.
That’s why I wasn’t worried at all as I stood backstage on the night of the spelling bee. I sipped cherry punch from a soggy paper cup and watched as the other contestants studied their worn lists of trick words. I didn’t need to study at the last minute. I knew that I’d already memorized all the words my weary brain could hold. Plus, I had last year’s victory to bolster my confidence.
In just a few moments, I would be onstage and on the road to ultimate spelling success. A few regional stops along the way and then I would compete in the national spelling bee in Washington, DC, an annual event since 1925.
I’d already memorized the winning words from past national competitions: syllepsis, insouciant, meticulosity, eudaemonic, esquamulose, interlocutory. I did not have a clue what any of those words meant, but I knew how to spell them. Did meaning matter, anyway? Mike had taught me that everything is open to interpretation and that meaning is up for grabs. But then Mike had also taught me that I shouldn’t listen to assholes who abandon their wives and light out for Navajo country.
We were told to line up on stage and the curtains opened. I could see my mother smiling and my father looking tense as he chewed his cigar in the front row. He was always early for everything. My sister grinned and waved, and I gave a slight nod in return. Coolness counts.
As a grizzled veteran of the spelling wars, I knew what came next. I knew the rules by heart, too. You had to step up to the podium, pronounce the word directly to the judge, spell it clearly letter by letter, and then pronounce it once again. You could ask for the word to be repeated, which gave you the chance to sound it out if you weren’t certain of the spelling. At the very least, you could stall while awaiting divine spelling inspiration.
I sized up the competition during the first, easy round. Shaky participants were already in serious trouble, because all the words in the first round came from the study booklet we’d received months earlier. It was just a matter of how well you could memorize those words. I breezed through with my confident spelling of loquacity. One opponent almost stumbled over illegible and another over indomitable.
The real competition was now starting. It included any of the 450,000 words that could be found in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.
All the starting contestants were still on stage as we moved into the second round. I watched as my opponents wrestled with criterion, elucidate, scrupulously, polyphony, elocution, prodigious, vaudevillian. I had no issues with nonchalant, and even did my best to behave that way while spelling it, but the stage was now much less crowded than at the start. We were hitting the heart of the contest.
At least half of the remaining contestants fell during the tense third round. Thus far, I’d known the spelling of every word that knocked one of my opponents out of the ring. They’d fallen to the jabs, right hooks, uppercuts, and low blows of words like mellifluous, rotogravure, indefatigable, churlish, palliative, draconian, and yeomanry. The third round was a spelling bloodbath.
I suppose that’s why I was so surprised when my word in the fourth round turned out to be such an easy one. “Douglas, please spell Rhode Island,” said the judge, Mr. Sherburn, who was also my English teacher. Mr. Sherburn had been present during my now-infamous parent/teacher conference. A tall man, he seemed perpetually stooped under the weight of the public educational system. I suspected that having me for a student wasn’t helping him much.
I strode confidently up to the podium. The lights were bright, but I could still see the audience. My father’s long legs were stretched out in the aisle and he was tapping his left foot. My mother still wore her ethereal smile. My sister winked.
I still have no explanation for what happened next.
“Rhode Island,” I said, “capital W-h-o-d…oh, shit.”
Everyone froze for a moment and then my classmates burst into assorted whoops, cheers, and laughter at my inappropriate comment. I knew I’d be hearing about all of this for a very long time. I couldn’t look at my father. I tried to slip offstage as Mr. Sherburn quieted the audience. But Mr. Sherburn told me to stop.
“Douglas,” he said, “come back here now. We both know you can spell that word correctly. Please do so. And please refrain from the use of four-letter words.”
I spelled Rhode Island correctly. I was tempted to spell “oh shit” correctly as well, but managed to restrain myself.
“Thank you. Of course, you are disqualified. Please step off the stage so we can move on with the contest.”
I sat and watched from the wings as little Michelle Huang, who was a year behind me and spoke English as her second language, proceeded to win the spelling bee. I knew all the words, including the winning one, but of course that didn’t matter, and neither did anything else. The real actor in the family was going to give the performance of his life and pretend that he didn’t care.