Our family was not always unconventional. For a while we did blend, back when my parent’s still had faith in each other and the American dream. There were bridge parties and summer vacations. Adele and I took ballet at the Academy of Dance. The family was its own purpose back then. Our lives wove together like mulberry silk.
But it didn’t last. The worms ran out of food. Other dreams came along that made the family seem dull. I can’t say precisely when the changes took hold. There was no all-at-once blow, like a tsunami or a coupe; but, Po, five years younger, remembers nothing of the halcyon days.
My parents began to need success the way Dorian Gray needed that picture in the attic; only all the ugly boils and the monstrous bloat of sin got pushed off onto other people instead of glomming onto a hidden portrait. That’s the way of some people. They fall in love with their own dominion and get mercenary about the whole thing.
During the dark days, I would huddle with Satan and he’d pass along the lessons that helped him get through tough times.
“You need a sense of humor, kid, that’s the main thing,” he told me. “Even the worst situation has a pretty hilarious edge. Like an anvil on the head – it’s funny, right? The trick is to see the humor when it’s you that’s standing under the falling safe.”
He said a sense of entitlement dulls the taste for irony at the moment you need it the most. Karma has a way of tacking back; then the hard times come down with infinite blunt force. If you can’t laugh when the joke's on you, you get clobbered. A pernicious bleed of disillusionment and regret will spill out from the gash. Unchecked, the poisons will change you like meth.
That’s how it was for my dad when his boomerang came back. He started to bully us, like starch coerces a shirt collar to stand up and be stiff. When a recession hit and my father lost ground he drew up the family’s cross-bar tight in his clutch. When the bottom dropped out he tensed the gauge of our strings until his grip seized up entirely into a hard little fist. He was Geppetto, only darker…more like Svengali really or Ike Turner before Tina got tough. We buckled and bowed and cried out for blue fairy.
The tougher things got the more my parent’s withdrew. They became isolated like ants that were lost from their swarm, still going through their routines but with repetitive actions that were empty of purpose. Their dreams had corroded until only bony fragments remained, as brittle as old hips. They scrabbled along the ossified remnants desperate for a lucky break to restore their stigmergic footing and make good their belief in the universal scheme. But, the break never came. Life felled the other way and sent them twitching and sputtering, right off the deep end.
Regarding failure, the devil said, there are two schools of thought. Some people see failure as an opportunity for learning, a stepping-stone for even greater success; others will tell you, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, find the winners and crush them with a brick.’
My parent’s outlook fell squarely within this second way of thinking.
With his contracts dried up my father began filling his time reading about laissez faire capitalism and a New World Order. The ideas sunk deep into the grey of his brain like invading spores from a reactionary pod. As the pods ripened financial crises were connected up with fanatic conspiracies about the government and God. A feral Bircheon ideology sprouted where the ovum had fallen.
The devil was not surprised. “When people get sucked in by power,” he told me, “and that power recedes, it’s fear that takes over and every shadow whispers.”
My father began working at his drafting table late into the nights, books laid out all around him. From the cubbies above his desk, he pulled down dusty sheaves of blueprint intended for floor plans and architectural sketches. He unfurled the papers and tacked adhesive putty at the edges to hold them in place and sharpened dozens of blunted 2H pencils, the ones he liked best for drawing thick lines and dark objects. Consulting the book of Revelations and reference volumes with titles like ‘A World in Ferment’ my father began sketching a timeline. With meticulous scrutiny he mapped the details of each ebb and flow he found in the market. Then, using colored pencils, he plotted suspicious current events to indicate where they fell on the up and down trends. These were all correlated to the coming Armageddon. At the bottom of the vellum he coded a bright legend.
The post-depression hoarding of my parent’s generation was visible in our house - rubber bands were collected around doorknobs and wrapping paper and bows were saved after Christmas. This same inclination began to menace my father’s timeline. Money, or the lack of it, stoked his mania. So as time passed and bills piled up beyond reckoning, the project expanded, chronicling more and more distant historical events. You could feel it swelling in him; the way tidewater rises and presses in on old levies. When such time had lapsed that his document included the economic context of several past civilizations, Ancient Greece and Mesopotamia, and recurrent economic themes had become exotically joined up with a hundred boogie men and government fixes, the momentum of my father’s preoccupation catalyzed and spilled over.
It was around this time that my sisters and I began seriously avoiding my father. Talking to my dad became like trying to have a conversation with one of those people who find numeric patterns in every commercial on TV and song that’s played on the radio. Only my dad saw the coming apocalypse. Any conversation of more than five minutes digressed. One minute we’d be talking about something that had happened in the cafeteria at school and the next thing we knew we were captive to a skull & bones diatribe about a secret coalitions. It was exhausting.
It got to the point that whenever we saw my dad coming, we’d run. Adele put together the basic dodge, which involved looping through the den then out the back door. But, sometimes getting past my father was more complicated. If he caught us at another part of the house we'd have to hole up in the bathroom or crawl into the garage through the rubber flap that had been installed for the cat. Of course, things didn’t always go like we planned. One time Adele was making a snack in the kitchen when my dad surprised her, blueprints in hand. She initiated a basic drop-to-the-floor-out-the-cat-door-roll but ended up breaking her arm on the linoleum instead. My dad forgot all about his timeline that week. Po and I thought it was awesome and even bearing in mind the six weeks in a cast, I’m pretty sure Adele would say it was worth it.
Despite our best efforts, there were times we got cornered. When face to face with my dad on his soapbox we each had own way of coping. Po would completely shut down. She wouldn’t move – she wouldn’t speak. She was like one of those mountaintop priests who slows their breathing and pulls herself into a trance. Her mouth would go slack at the edges and even though her eyes would be locked dead on my father, they seemed to stare all the way through him, maybe to Tibet. Po’s stupor lay open the door for lectures long enough to induce cranial bleeding in the average listener; but without resistance my dad would eventually lose interest and move on.
Adele’s response was almost exactly the opposite. Besieged, she would hone in on the most insignificant of remarks and twist it into a personal affront as if my father were attacking her heart with a knife. This would confuse my dad and derail his examination of left-wing agendas and American liberty. The ensuing maelstrom of mutual belligerence would quickly come to a head and something like a supernova would be triggered where both Adele and my father would expend all their fuel, collapse in on themselves and explode. After that, they wouldn’t go near one another for weeks.
I had been born a fighter. I could kick like a mule in a fight with a bear. But regrettably I was not a born winner. My father could suck me into an argument and we both knew it. I could fight but I would lose.
When I asked Satan why I wasn’t more of a winner– it seemed a pretty standard return for the exchange of a soul - he quickly pulled out a contract.
“You see here,” he said, jabbing the pointy nail of his index finger at a patch of 4-font print at the bottom of a page in a very thick document, “you didn’t sign the winners contract.”
“I signed a contract?” I said, looking over his shoulder. “How could I have signed a contract? I was an infant.”
Satan ignored me.
“No, no my dear. Nothing so petty for you as money and fame.”
The devil clucked his tongue and gave me a doting smile.
“Of course not…” I groaned, shaking my head, “…who would want things like money and recognition to come easy?”
“Exactly,” he said with a nod. “You signed an agreement of far greater distinction. Ours was an agreement for Full Disclosure of Abysmal Knowledge.”
I dropped my face into my hands.
The devil stopped short and waved a hand dismissively. “Oh no, don’t worry. The title’s just a bit of legalese. Abysmal here implies deep - you know? Very deep…like a deep abyss.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I get the idea,”
“So,” he continued, “deep knowledge; and, of course, a personal relationship with me.”
“Great,” I said. “Sounds like a shrewd exchange.”
The devil shimmered.
“Doesn’t that special relationship bring along a few perks? A little wealth, at least? Opportunities maybe…?”
Satan shrugged. “Well,” he said, “I guess we’ll see.”
Anyway, me fighting with my father never really worked out so I had two strategies for evasion. My dad was a pushover for Looney Tunes riffs and goofy jokes; so, whenever I could, I’d get him to laugh. The other tactic was to bait my father with ideas even crazier than his own - like telling him I’d heard that there were cults doling out LSD in school snack boxes; or that a hospital in Nebraska was swapping out newborns for clones. But, this was tricky. Any conspiracy, even a far out story, could trigger affinity from my dad. Then I’d be stuck for at least the next hour pouring over the timeline and trying not to hemorrhage. Slapstick was better. Besides, if I could get my father to laugh over some stupid routine or an even stupider impression sometimes he’d shift back into an early version of himself – the one who’d had confidence and even a certain charm - the one who surprised us one night with a puppy zipped up in his windbreaker.
My parent’s believed that their ball-busting fall had been all about cash – a reversal from losing their money and status; but my sisters and I could see it went deeper. We had been there for each failure that eroded their spirits and we’d watched as their hopes slumped into despair. We had witnessed their brutal surrender. We knew who they had been and what they’d traded out for. Our familiarity embarrassed my parents, like scars too deep to hide or grey hairs that wouldn’t be covered with dye.
The changeover in my dad reminds me of a polar bear I once saw at the Central Park zoo. Here was a great nomadic creature - the largest of all land carnivores– confined in the middle of the city to a concrete enclosure no bigger than a shoebox to a rabbit or a jelly jar to a bat. Without his dominion, the bear couldn’t cope. So he started to pace. He paced every hour of every day, in exactly the same way, over and over. I guess the obsession was all that he had. His obsessional steps were completely nuts but at least they were his own.
Satan is unsentimental when it comes to my parents. As a matter of fact, he gives me a hard time about being nostalgic myself.
“People get caught up believing in all kinds of dumb idols,” he tells me, “then they become as stupid as the idols they follow. They practically give their souls away. So what?”
“So what?” I repeat flatly. “Really, D.? Uh, they’re my parents. That’s what.”
“It’s a business for Christ sakes!” Satan spits. “I’ve got to make ends meet like anyone else.” The devil shakes his head like I’m the idiot but he softens up and tries to explain. “Look, I’d go bust if it weren’t for folks like your parents. They’re my bread and butter.”
Folks, he calls them. That cracks me up. Satan’s always trying to come off like he’s down home.
In the end my family all turned away from each another. This kind of uncoupling from one’s own flesh and blood is hard. It always gets ugly, like cutting off your arm with a penknife to get out from under a boulder. We were not kind. But, I see it more compassionately now. My parent’s missteps unleashed our family’s demise; and, without humor, farce became tragedy and our lives turned to nothing but a big, savage mess.
So we looked away. We chose not to linger and call attention to the waste. I think letting go was our way of showing grace. Sometimes you have to be willing to leave where you are in order to be able to arrive somewhere new.