The skeleton of my father sat up abruptly in his grave at the top of the hill in the small First Hebrew Congregation cemetery just north of Peekskill.
“Jesus, Elie, you spend forty years trying to dig up enough clues to solve an insoluble existential puzzle and you put that giant piece on the table just like that? On page two? You don’t think that’s kind of a spoiler?”
I never planned on my father’s skeleton being my partner in trying to tell the story of his life and times, but he made a pretty good case. As I said, he was a very smart guy and, in spite of a lifelong twitch to defend himself at all costs, could always see the other side of what he was arguing against.
“I love it when you talk to the reader like I’m not sitting right here,” said the skeleton, turning his head in a crackling circle to loosen his crepitating neck.
I can feel this little intro slipping out of my hands, dad.
“Don’t mention it,” said the skeleton, with a nonchalant little flip of his hand.
High over the well-situated grave (there is a huge tree providing blessed shade) two Westchester turkey vultures made lazy circles in the air. The skeleton looked up and nodded.
To those who loved my father, and there were many of us, including some very bright people who frequently roared at his tossed off lines, waiting with expectant smiles for the next bit of hilarity, it will cause great distress to read about his monstrous side.
“After all, Elie, who among us has not employed relentless brutality to irreparably damage the children we raise? Come on, Elie, be fair about that.”
I’m picturing the dinner table when Arlene and Russ Savakus were over. Arlene with her keen appreciation, her super-sharp mind, Russ, her more low-key hipster husband, a moderately famous bass player, both of them howling. Their explosions of laughter were a kind of music I can still hear. My father was at his best with an audience like Arlene and Russ.
“We’re always at our best with people we love, who love us back,” said the skeleton.
Yes. Love is all we’ve got here, really. If you don’t have love in your life, nothing else really matters, except a ruthless lust for power I suppose.
“As your friend Napoleon, who reputedly regarded men as base coin, wrote (something to this effect) in his diary ‘As for me, I know very well I have no real friends, and you don’t suppose I care– as long as I remain what I am I will always have ‘friends’ enough.’ As you have noted before, Elie, who is the ‘you’ he is addressing this thought about not needing intimates to?”
Arlene and Russ. I remember lying in my bed, as a kid, long after dinner, with the smoke from Arlene’s endless cigarettes wafting up to my room, along with their cackles and excited remarks. It is hard to imagine, seeing you at your best, that you could have also…
“Well, there’s your mystery of life right there, Elie, and nothing very sweet about it, I’m afraid.”
The potential in all of us, to be at our best, instead of pressed under the pressures we are constantly forced to fight being crushed by. Mind boggling, how hard it is to put that best side always forward.
“Well, some people are better at it than others. Some people, some of our most successful people, are all show, a thin candy shell over an inner life of squirming, festering horror. Look at this menace you have in the White House now. Unloved bully, raised by a demanding, overbearing. loveless father and whatever the hell his gold-digging mother was, look at the cruel monster that produces. I like to feel, although, admittedly, I verbally whipped you and your sister in the face every night over dinner, that I never humiliated either of you, that I always, somehow, let you know how much I loved you both.”
Aye, that you did, pater, though it took me almost sixty years to see it all clearly.
“The tragedy of life, Elie,” said the skeleton. One of the vultures suddenly veered toward earth, the other one turned to follow.
Also the triumph of life, dad. We couldn’t have this kind of conversation when you were alive, but now we are.
“I’ll take it,” said the skeleton, looking off toward the rapidly descending scavengers.