My father’s most formidable armor was dreadedness. He would get an implacable expression on his face to show he was ready for your worst. The look was very much like Clint Eastwood’s iconic expression of hatred and superiority. I suspect you could have shown a photograph of my father’s face at such times to a native of any culture in the world and they would have said, in their language, “dreaded aspect”. That fearsome aspect, perversely, invited the attack he was now grimly prepared for. Bring on your worst, lay on MacDuff, let’s see what you think you got, punk.
My sister reported once getting a telephone message from our father and that his voice alone perfectly conveyed his dreaded aspect. “From the first word I began to cringe and after a few seconds I wanted to rip my eardrums out just to make it stop… it was…” and as words to convey her horror failed her, she pantomimed how horrible it was, gesturing around her ears with an agonized expression on her face to show how desperately she wanted the relentless, dreaded voice to stop.
That he was not always like this should be clear by now. He was also funny, smart and capable of great kindness and sensitivity. He was not only the monster that is easy to sum up as the D.U., the Dreaded Unit. It’s just that if you see this expression on a parent’s face, and their readiness to angrily back it up, it’s impossible to forget. You know this persona is waiting, ready to loom and do battle at any time.
Did he show this dreadedness daily, weekly? I really couldn’t say, more than weekly, possibly less than daily. The fact is, he showed us this hard face often enough that we both know it very well and to this day are sensitive to the nuances of this dreaded aspect whenever we glimpse it in the world.
The thing that’s impossible to understand as a child is that this super tough pose that says “I am ready to, and capable of, smashing your face without lifting a fist” is not something a human really chooses to assume, especially with their own children. It is a reaction related to the fight or flight reflex. It comes about not out of toughness as much as from fear and anger.
The anger was somewhat understandable, the fear behind it much more subtle and impossible for a child to get a glimpse of in any case. I didn’t get any insight into the fear until I was close to forty years old.
Eli, during one of my regular visits to his tidy one bedroom cottage in Mount Kisco, NY, revealed the main source of my father’s terror, anger and combativeness. He revealed it reluctantly, an eye witness who had mulled over the decision to testify for decades, who stepped forward to give crucial information during the final moments of the long sentencing phase. At this point he and I had discussed many other matters, this revelation was clearly not one he was anxious to make.
“Listen,” he had told me in his gruff voice when we began recording some of the sessions, “these things I’m telling you are for you, for whatever use you can make of them in your own life, and for your sister, nobody else. I’m telling you these stories to help explain some difficult things that are impossible to understand, so you can start to make sense of some of these complicated, insane, twisted stories, the sometimes cock-eyed, convoluted and unexplainable behavior of certain members of our family.”
He could see I understood this and then, because I was writing all the time, he added “these are not stories you should write about, in any form, until everybody in them is dead. People would be hurt by many of the things I’m telling you, even if you think you are presenting them very objectively and with perfect fairness, or even if you think you’re fictionalizing them. The people you write about will know it’s them, and they’ll be hurt, and they won’t forgive you. I’m telling you these personal details to explain impossible things for you. When everybody is dead, the stories I’m telling you are your’s to do with what you like. While we’re alive, not a word. You understand?”
I did, even as the piece I wrote about him immediately after he died was a tissue of pure bullshit. I was in the process of completing work for a Masters in “creative writing”, which the New York authorities had deemed functionally related to teaching third graders and which put me on a slightly higher pay level with my Common Branches teaching license. I’d included an Eli character in my thesis, my adviser had told me the dynamic character deserved his own book and convinced me to remove the character from the narrative that became my thesis. I wrote a fictionalized short story about him instead.
In trying to weave reality into fiction, and explain the sort of lovable rogue Eli was, I made up a completely implausible story involving Eli, his millionaire half-brother’s yacht (Dave never had a boat that I know of) and a semi-drunken sexual escapade with his half-brother’s beautiful young Brazilian wife, conducted on deck, under a tarp, while the cuckold slept in one of the cabins beneath them. It was an absurd story in just about every way, and conveyed almost nothing of Eli, certainly nothing of his character. There was barely a whiff of psychological truth in it.
I was idiotic enough to mention the short story to Eli’s oldest daughter at the funeral and even stupider to mail her a copy when she told me she’d love to read it. After all, I was a cousin who had befriended her difficult father and had known him well, spoken of him with great nuance and love at the funeral. She hoped that whatever I’d written might give her an insight or two into her own supremely problematic dad, now that he was gone. She had no reason to suspect that in the piece I’d mentioned to her I’d been not only an unreliable narrator, but a deliberately and artlessly lying one.
I described an invented confession of an unspeakable betrayal that had never happened. I added, in my hubris, ‘he reported this to me with a deep regret that demonstrated, beyond any doubt, the truth of his story”. The truth of the story I had completely invented, a story that never could have happened. Eli was a rogue, but not that kind at all. What an asshole move on my part it was writing the story and then sending it to Eli’s daughter.
The deep regret with which he described this illuminating event in my father’s early childhood left me no doubt that he was revealing something painfully true that he had witnessed more than once.
For some reason I picture the room very clearly, although it’s a room I’ve never seen, a room that was never described to me. I see an austere room with a high ceiling and dark wood all around. There are dust motes drifting in the slanting shaft of late summer afternoon light coming through the one narrow window. The room is virtually airless. It is a room from a nightmare of poverty, fear and violence. My tiny, red-haired grandmother is seated at the head of the table, at a seat Eli described as her seat. She always sat there, the way we always sat in the same seats around our family dinner table. Next to her seat was a drawer. In that drawer she kept the heavy, canvas wrapped cord for her iron.
Eli paused to make sure I remembered what these heavy, rough cords were like. I did, I’d seen a couple during my early childhood, from before the age of ready plastic and rubber for insulation of electrical wires. These frayed, abrasive cords were much thicker and far less flexible than a modern day power cord. They were round, not flat as most power cords are today. They contained numerous heavy wires and the insulation was a series of wrappings, the outermost being a kind of rough burlap.
From the time my father could stand, any time he did anything that displeased his tiny, religious mother, a woman who as far as I can tell led an unhappy life of limitless frustration, she would yank open that drawer. Her little hand would grab the rough, heavy cord and she’d swing it violently into the young boy’s face.
“In his face?” I asked Eli.
He nodded with infinite sorrow. There was a pause as we looked at each other. Then he said “after a while, all she had to do was rattle that drawer and he’d….” and the eighty-five year-old popped out of his chair and stood straight up, quivering in fear, eyes cast to the ground.
A light went on in the universe when I heard that story. Things I had no chance to understand suddenly came closer to my grasp. I was flooded with empathy for my little father. Imagine being a one year-old, a two year-old, and being whipped in the face by your own mother?
“My mother, may she rest in peace,” he always began any story about her. There were almost no stories about her.
We had dinner the other night with my father’s first cousin, Azi, and his wife Sue. It was a wonderful time. We had a few great laughs and Azi, who greatly resembles my father, although a much more easy-going version, reminded me of him uncannily when he cracked up laughing. My father could be reduced to helpless hysterics when he found something hilarious. My sister and I suffer this same helplessness at times, when something is truly too funny to be able to stop laughing about. Azi didn’t fall into this state, but we had a couple of good long laughs during our leisurely dinner.
I mentioned the manuscript I am working on, this Book of Irv that is now about 450 pages long. I described how, about 100 pages in, my father’s skeleton suddenly started piping up. I told them I’d thought it was a bit of stagey device at first, these conversations with a dead man, but soon found myself looking forward to the daily talks with the skeleton, conversations that often surprised me. Yes, these were talks I wish we’d had when he was alive, but these written ones were the next best thing. I told Azi I woke up every day looking forward to talking with the skeleton, hearing what he had to say.
He smiled and later asked me if I’d put any of the pages on line. He seemed very happy that I had. I told him I’d send him the link or he could google bookofirv, one word, and it should pop right up. The following afternoon I sent him a link to the intro, along with a few follow-ups to our chat during dinner the night before. I included two names of siblings of our grandparents’, Yuddle and Chashki, that I hadn’t found in his on-line family tree. I expressed my surprise to learn, from his family tree, that my father, like him, had been named after Azriel, my father’s grandfather and Azi’s great grandfather. I told him how much we had enjoyed the chance to have dinner with them.
What follows is likely the paranoia of a child over-sensitized to signs of dreadedness and reasons for dread. Or, maybe not.
Late last night I googled bookofirv and, to my dismay, it popped up right above a link to gratutiousblahg with its catchy, pugnacious description: warning: gratuitous fucking f-word and passive voice use, and another one called Fucking Moods. I then clicked on Book of Irv and found, to my surprise, that it had been visited seven times that day, by one reader, in the United States. This struck me because the site is generally visited by zero visitors on any given day.
The intro I’d sent him the link to had not been visited directly, which is indicated in the WordPress statistics when a link to a particular page is clicked on. I assume it must have been Azi reading through the entries, looking at the photos, before my email reached him. It may all be pure coincidence. It’s possible Azi may not even have regular access to a computer during his visit to the States.
Or, it’s also possible, says the son of the Dreaded Unit, that the expression Azi had in a couple of the photos we posed for after dinner– probably a completely inadvertent micro-expression like the ones we often have in photos we are not ready for– the only glimmer I’ve ever seen on his face of my father’s dreaded aspect– and my sister was struck by this glimpse too, was a grim foreshadowing of his reaction to my emerging portrait of his beloved first cousin.
As the last family member alive, outside of my sister and me, he may well have been offended by references to Tamarka, his grandmother, after all, a woman he undoubtedly loved, described in only the unflattering context I knew her from. Mentioning my father’s surprising lifelong bitterness toward Azi’s mother might have hurt him too.
“What did I tell you, schmuck, about writing these things about people who are still alive?” I can hear the angry voice of Eli rasp. “Even if everyone else is no longer alive, this guy is the son and grandson of the woman your father had little good to say about. You both took my side against his mother? Really? She moved to Israel when you were a kid, how much contact did you have with her? Asshole, do you think before you do things, even at sixty goddamned years old?”
“Eli,” called the skeleton at the top of the hill to his cousin in his grave below, “you’re a fine one to call somebody else an asshole, having been, not exactly, shall we say, a model of discretion during your long battle of a life.”
“You’re only talking that way, Bub, because you know I can’t come up that hill and kick your goddamned ass,” said the skeleton of my father’s first cousin. “And because you know how much I love you, which would not, by the way, prevent me from knocking the shit out of you, if I could somehow get up there, which, unfortunately for me and lucky for you, I can’t.”