Chasing a Ghost
When my agent suggested I work on a new memoir while we wait for responses (offers?) from this latest round of submissions for my first memoir, Junkie Love (or Boys of Belvedere, depending on when we sent it), I was excited to get started. And I'm getting work done. I've got close to 20,000 words, even if they are mostly shit, because first drafts are always mostly shit, which is why Anne Lamott titled one of her chapters in her excellent Bird by Bird, which I consider to be the best advice on writing out there, "Shitty First Drafts." If you can get 500 words, hell even a decent sentence, from your first 20,000 words, take it, be happy. But there is really nothing worse than a writer talking about the "writing process." And I'm not doing that. Besides that's not the point of this post, anyway.
The point is my dead father and the lack of witnesses he left behind.
If the heart of my first memoir was my mother, then I'd anticipated the cold, black soul of this follow-up would be dear ol' dad, a man with whom I had about seven conversations my entire life. And apparently I'm not alone.
My father died in 2004, six months to the day from my mother, his two-time ex-wife, from milofibrosis, which he contracted working at a contaminated job site, the poison in the soil no secret to my father's employers, who had simply crunched the numbers and calculated it would be less expensive to pay off any wrongful death suit than it would to stop work and clean up the mess (more on that lawsuit in a later post). Memoir #1 ends with my mother's death, so it seemed a logical place to pick up with my father's dying, the memoir being a sequel of sorts (and I do love sequels to novels that haven't been published. I've already written a sequel to my noir novel, the Lone Palm, which my agent is also pitching, called the Payback. Might be smart to wait until somebody takes a fucking book before I invest years writing sequels, but like Little Marie says, writer's write).
So I've been doing my best PI work, trying to track down people who knew the old man, 'cause Lord knows I sure as shit didn't. And I'm proving as woefully inept as my private dick in the Lone Palm. Something I didn't anticipate, because though my parents are dead, I still had some lines on important people in my father's life--his brother and sister, his childhood best friend and my godfather, my two brothers, one of whom is the result of a long-term affair with his mistress, with whom I would also be able to speak, his old boss, plus there were other acquaintances, friends, and relatives, including my Aunt Patty, who though she has been in more mental hospitals than I have rehabs was there when my parents met and married, at 16 and 19, respectively.
And you know what I've learned from all these close connections? The inside skinny? That he once freed his sister's dog from a dog catcher when he was 8. And that he owned a red and white Chevy when he was a teenager. I shit you not. That's it. These are the most intimate details from the people who knew my father best.
Said his mistress, "If I was able to get your father to talk for ten minutes, there was a good chance he repeated himself at least once."
Forget that the man was a douche. I don't care about that. I came to terms with that shit a long time ago. I am not interested in using a memoir to air grievances or write overwrought Plathian pleas for the love of a father I'll never have. Parents are like kidneys; as long as one of them's working, you'll be OK. I just want to have some material with which to work. Even in death he's let me down.
Because it is all about the work. I want to round my father out as a character, find out his wants, desires; I want to make him human on the page. It's easy to call him a violent asshole, and he was (he once threw my mother down a flight of stairs and broke her leg), but he was also burdened by the same plight as the rest of us, just a man trying to make his way best he could in this fucked up world. And he didn't have it easy.
My grandfather was shot down in WWII and declared dead, only to return two years later, out of the blue, to find his now-alcoholic wife who'd picked up the bottle in his absence; and apparently my grandfather wasn't the gentle old man I knew as a kid. Then there's me.
I was born when my father was barely 20. Can you imagine that shit? A kid at 20. Fuck, I'm 40 and I can barely handle it, and I'm a helluva lot more enlightened and intelligent than my old man. And this is what weighs on me.
Because it is about me, or more specifically my son, Holden.
This blog started as a challenge from my friend Joe Loya, who wanted to see what I'd say to my son, what advice would I give, coming from the place of "locker room/prison tier" macho mentality in which I was raised. Any memoir that I write now includes my boy, who is the center of my world. That's what they said would happen if I had a kid, and they were right. And what's weirdest about this sensation, this "giving" your life to another, placing his needs above your own, is that you really aren't.
They made a lousy Superman movie a few years back, starring Brandon Routh as Superman. Routh basically imitated the late Christopher Reeve in his portrayal, which was a bad strategy because the character needed an updating, not an homage by an actor not as good as the original. They are rebooting the franchise because the writers painted themselves into the corner by giving Superman a kid. Which is going to fail as long as Superman's costume is baby blue (just a theory). Anyway, shitty movie. But there was one reoccurring line that sticks with me, and which I've been thinking about a lot. Superman goes into his kid's room. Well, actually he flies in. 'Cause, you know, he's Superman, and he says, to himself, "The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son." Which didn't make a whole lot of sense at first. In fact, it just sounded goofy and inaccurate. I figured the line was referring to the act of actually creating a baby, y'know, a part of you lives on, that sort of crap. But that's not it. You actually "become your son."
It's freaky, really. I look down at Holden and I see me. Literally, me. Sometimes he'll look so much like old pictures I saw of myself as a baby, and you lock eyes, and it's beyond the laws of God and man, and you swear it is you, and now you have a second chance, and you won't fuck him up like they did you. Which might be what my father thought. Only I can't ask him. Because he's dead.
Anyway, I figured this memoir would be a good...let's call it exploration. By understanding my father, it would help me be a father, that sort of thing. Except there is nothing to uncover. Nobody can tell me jackshit about the man. I've wanted to believe that my old man was, despite his outward "spade is a spade" appearance, a complex, layered human being, conflicted and tormented, with dreams dashed, hopes put on hold, whatthefuckever, but something. I thought this would be the meat of my new book. And maybe it still can be. But it's going to have to be a real short fucking book if it is.
Or perhaps I'll need to find a new soul.