NB: these are excerpts from essays intended for publication in Mattering, a collection of essays. They are meant to be spec excerpts for slightly larger works.
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died.
-Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows
A guy I know, the actor Larry Hagman, owned a place called Heaven. You get there by staying on Pacific Coast Highway and following it all the way up past to the turnoff south of Santa Barbara. Once you get a certain ways, you turn west and begin climbing up up up and twisting round, round and around. At some point there’s a turn-off you’d need to be sure about and you take that. Keep on some just when you think you’ve been misled and sure enough a grand white house rises up from the plateau one’s driven onto. Curling around the gravel driveway, one remembers all the driveways one’s entered and those left behind. The things that have come and gone, the people who won’t believe that you were there. You recall that you sat around his living-room pool under palm trees watching a dead mouse waft in a slight current.
[Insert Larry pic]
When you come down from Heaven, your Aunt Sarah will be scared for you. She knows better. ‘You did not spend an afternoon with J.R. Ewing.’ ‘He’s nice, Sarah. Very generous. Sweet. Grateful to be alive.’ ‘Tommy.’ Mixing brown cake batter or stirring bacon, she’d shake that wooden spoon at me. ‘He’s a liar. He couldn’t be that mean if it wasn’t inside him for real.’ Famous people got it all bad. They’re never who we’re told they are. They have to work hard to be who they really are. There’s so much story between them and their own skin. It’s a good thing Larry hunkered down in Heaven up above Ojai. Celebrities aren’t any different than us. We all become story.
The Grim Reaper got good meat this year. Larry died a few weeks ago. He had held Jeannie’s bottle between two fingers, tapped Jock Ewing’s picture from Southfork, scooted up to a rooftop bower to tell us of Texas and his mother (Mary Martin), and never said once anything about the dead mouse floating in his living-room pool. It was time for dad to take off in June. Don’t think he didn’t know. Give him the juice to let go. To have the body catch up to the story. I kissed him on the forehead and told him go go go. I’d see him on the other side. No more nights or mornings in that peach room, then. Two more months of whens and soons.
A few days after dad died, Lizzie, Biki’s sister called to fill in the blanks on Biki’s story. Like so many, she’d dropped off down in Auckland. We’d been leaving messages, but got no recent response. Seems we got stuck in the groove of You two ought to come down here. When you do, oh, you’ll love it. I’ll show you everything. That’s what she said. I would tell her about something I was doing, some new goal. The story of my life. She would listen patiently and then, When you do, oh, you’ll love it. I’ll show you everything. Right, Bik, I’d say. You just said that. We will. We’ll go camping on the beach. We’ll rent a Rover and drive. When you do, oh, you’ll love it. I’ll show you everything. Bik’s sister rang to say that Biki now had permanent alcoholic dementia. Fuck. The story of that beautiful, vivacious, leggy blonde—who screwed up her lips over gorgeous crumblies, who rooted for me and us every step of the way—wasn’t anymore now than how many cigarettes could she get.
[insert pic of Biki & Karen]
A few years ago, I introduced Biki to my sister Karen. Two drinkers keeping-it-together-while-falling-apart got on like horseflies to you-know-what. They goosed each other. They fixed each other’s hair. They made sure the other one got the last of the wine. Like Biki, Karen would often go stealth, not returning phone calls or emails. Just ask me, I can smell the isolation one’s got to take up to tell the tale of keeping-it-together-while-falling-apart. I can smell it a mile away. Karen took Dad’s death hard. As dads go, ours was a pillar of her life. Karen was one of the hostages Dad took to defend and maintain his self-image. He captured pieces of all of us, but he got just about all of Karen. His self-image, like my own, like Karen’s, like so many of us in my family was rooted in profound shame. His bio father, Hawk Vincent, never acknowledged him despite living in the same small Arkansas town.
[Insert dad as boy pic] His bio dad had five boys in that family. Everyone in the town knew that Hawk was dad’s dad but in the way that these things were handled then, people just decided to keep it on D.L. ‘It’ being dad. ‘It’ got the surname of a friend of Grandma’s: Vernon. When dad was ten he asked if Hawk was his dad. Ask him, Grandma said. He found Hawk in his barn and asked him.
What does your mother say?
To ask you.
Then I suppose I am.
That answer feels exactly like the sideways, non-committal cock-and-bull myself and most of the men in my family have used to get ourselves out of sticky situations.
If Nature abhors a vacuum, it loves a story. The story of my dad’s birth held water until I was 16. It was short. Hawk died of a heart attack a few years before we were born. End of story. No questions taken, no questions asked. Hawk stayed dead until my teens. No questions taken, but secrets were told. Hawk had lived all the way until 1970 and, as far as we know, had never acknowledged dad, dad’s two marriages, or his six children.
Ever since he was a little boy, your dad is the saddest person I ever met, Aunt Sarah told me. For good reason and great cost did he carry the load of shame, humiliation and rejection of never being good enough to be seen, even by his own father, for who he was. A Vincent.
If shame is the fruit of abandonment, it is a worm new in those who come next. Anger is one thing. Rage is another. Dad’s shame got transferred to Karen and the rest of us in my dad’s irrational violent outbursts and self-loathing. My father’s shame was the root of rage in our house. His became ours. Nobody picked up that bushel of fruit up more than Karen and my brother, Mike.
[insert Mike & Karen pic on bikes] Dutifully, Karen picked up the sadness, shame and self-loathing that Dad could not stand and turned it on herself. We all did, more or less. Dad and Mom convinced all of us, more or less, that our very existence had little or no worth next to theirs. Dad shuttled his own self-loathing over to all of us in different ways. But to Karen it came from early sexual abuse and constant diminishment (‘Do you really need those potatoes?’).
Karen spent most of her life unable to see past that particular story. In all of her years of therapy, she couldn’t see that the story that she and dad and mom had woven around her life was just fallout from Grandma’s quickie. By the time of her death at 51 after countless bouts of bronchitis and at least two of pneumonia; after being gutted for bariatric surgery whose internal scars strangled her gut; after having hoarded food because now she was thin — I just gotta know it’s there; after having vomited countless times to show off how much she didn’t need food anymore, after knowing all of Marion Davies’ movies and being the only person I could talk with about Louise Brooks’ or F.W. Murnau, who could shake and sing that Bessie Smith flood song—When it thunders and lightnin’ and when the wind begins to blow/When it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow/There’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go — after finding a good hundred pounds of the three she’d lost; after having drugged herself nippy with Prozac, Prozac, Zoloft, Luvox, Paxil, Celexa, and Lexapro, Wellbutrin, Zyban, Seroquel since the mid-90s—Thom, I have to or I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m scared — after she shushed her worn spirit with more wine than self-worth; after she ignored the profound mould infestation in the bathroom where she died; after all of that I can’t help but think that it was Dad forcing her to quit playing basketball when she finally made Varsity because she hadn’t lost ten pounds over summer break that was seminal to writing her story. No matter how good her mean green bean casserole and her buttermilk yeast biscuits were, they weren’t enough to rewrite. Oh, she had a story all right and it killed her.
I hesitated to tell her about Biki. I had to, though. She was going to ask after her one of these days. Maybe knowing what happened to Biki might goose Karen. Maybe snap out of it and think something of herself. Maybe she’d shake off how Mom and Dad made her smoke a mixing bowl of Kools and then live in her car because she was smoking; maybe she’d say fuck you to every man that couldn’t take her anguish and pitched her over for something better; maybe she’d take up film history again. It wasn’t too late for Marine Biology. Not these days. But all of that takes telling a different story. …