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The Black Veil: A Memoirby Rick Moody
So there's the matter of our crimes. The remembrance of our misdoings is grievous to us; the burden of them is intolerable. Lies, whispered, of friends' indiscretions; instances of envy — when we hate the people we love; peccadilloes; filched office supplies; inflated expense accounts; violent obsessions of all kinds; reckless speeding; a fender bender whose scene we left; the belt from Macy's we slipped into our own belt loops (they're the easiest thing to take); a copy of Montaigne, nineteenth-century edition, never returned to the library; a kiss stolen from someone else's lover; a night out of state upon a tanned mattress when the energy of adultery seemed so persuasive that we concealed from ourselves all memory of our spouses; gifts never sent; allegiances never acknowledged; inexplicable cruelties to people with bad luck; inexplicable cruelties to friends; the waiter we upbraided that time; we cheated at cards; we cheated at tennis; we cheated at backgammon or at chess or at some board game of our childhood; we tripped that guy in the backfield and then waltzed in for the goal; we took things for granted, took privileges for rights; we demanded things in no way due us. And then with some of us there are worse crimes, crimes unspeakable, though we might write of them, like robbery, battery, or rape. We fell into coercion or abuse or full-scale embezzlement or even murder, the murder of innocents, perhaps; we committed crimes of rage so that afterward we couldn't sleep, couldn't forget, couldn't think straight, and whispered to ourselves, revisiting these instances of our transgression. There's the matter of our crimes.
Down underneath New York City, in a network of tunnels and caverns, rat populated, perspiring, rumbling, lonely, I was troubled, as I have often been troubled, by these alarums of conscience. Who knows why? I was bothered, as you may be bothered yourself, by what I had gotten wrong or by some feeling that I might have done better, or I was bothered by the conviction that I might have done without some luxury, might have put aside some vanity or selfishness. What I liked about this particular cavern of archetypes, the New York City subway system, in the intoxication of conscience, was the farthest end of the platform. I liked to stand in unpopulated spots. To get there, at my particular station, the passage was at one juncture quite narrow, around a stairwell, around a pair of I beams (weekly repainted and that day deepest blue) dank with condensation. It was a setting dangerous in ways both actual and allegorical. Nonetheless, I was purposed upon the end of the platform because I liked to ride in the last car, the car most crowded with people who lived on the trains, with men and women doing their nine to five sprawled out lengthways, their faces turned from their compatriots toward the hard shell of benches. If you are remorseful by nature, you believe that a great evil will befall you whichever way you turn. If you are remorseful by nature, around every street corner is the speeding crack- or booze-intoxicated driver who will veer up on the sidewalk for blocks, flattening pedestrians, including yourself. Your death will be lingering and painful. Thus I often imagined in this particular dangerous setting that I would be pushed from the platform into the path of an oncoming train. I imagined the aftermath, the dismemberment, the morphine drip, a head injury that rendered me speechless or paralyzed. Headlines in the Post. In consideration of my fate — in the landscape of NYC nightmares, where the riders sometimes tongue-lashed one another — I was passing around the I beam I've described, through the narrowest spit of platform, when I came up short in front of an impasse. A fellow New Yorker. Lost in a dance of circumnavigation — should I go left, should I go right — I paid little attention to my dance partner until this New Yorker began to hide, like a sprite, like a pixie, behind the I beam that separated us. To allow my own unimpeded passage to the end of the platform? To push me to my death? Maybe. I intended to catch a look at him, if he were a he, as I passed around the sturdy navy blue I beam. I intended a bland smile of appreciation. I intended to acknowledge our mutual awkwardness by catching his eye, by catching the spot where his life's experience was etched for appreciation. The spot where his harried but polite New York visage might await me, or maybe his furrowed brow, his impatience and irritation, maybe his contempt.
But there was no face for me to see.
He was faceless. This guy. Instead of a face there was a large hooded garment, a sort of ski jacket, probably, an anorak, a cloak, just about, a costume from The Seventh Seal, and accordingly this hood hung down over his face, not just over his forehead, so that no face was apparent there at all, none whatever, no chin, no patch of unshaven neck, no stubble, no face at all but just the hood, in a kind of dusty, grimy taupe, swinging this way and that, a loose integument, so as to permit whatever infrared eyes my fellow New Yorker had beneath his garment to do little but steal a glimpse of the immediate ground before him, if that. The ski jacket was enormous, a body suit; it hung down about the knees, over gray, fouled chinos. He wore gloves. Work shoes. He had some kind of battery acid cologne. So here he was, Death, that personage of the Middle Ages. The guy from the D?rer engravings. He kept the I beam between us and then swiveled up the platform, like a pinball caroming off bumpers, startling locals up and down the platform, a gaggle of parochial-school kids, lawyers jabbering (fresh from the courthouse), the elderly, teens who shouldn't have been scared of anything, least of all another subway freak.
On American mass transit, I have, as all New Yorkers have, seen every variation on sorrow. Watched the guys in the two-seaters with their faces in their hands, wound into postures of despair, was even one of these guys myself, riding the express to midtown the morning of my sister's death, hunched over during rush hour, red and raw, mutely sobbing, with no fellow rider to ask, Are you okay? Subways are the high-volume freight carriers of despair. In time — through the triumph of deinstitutionalization — you learn on the trains a lot about disorders of the soul, you live with schizophrenics, manic-depressives, drug addicts, homeless people, religious pilgrims, panhandlers, and thus, upon the platform, the sudden appearance that day of a man who entirely concealed his face from his community should not have been entirely astonishing. But it was. I did a jig with Death, he went left, I went left, and I gazed at him (on this dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest), and could not move, was paralyzed until he fled. Was he badly disfigured? Did he haunt the far end of the platform like an untouchable, secreting himself to spare me the horror of his appearance? Was he driven by hallucinatory voices? Was he evading pursuers, was he on the lam, having ratted out some crime syndicate? And what's in a face, anyhow, except the uncomplicated story of a man? What's in a face that makes it the nail on which we hang our ideas about people?
A train thundered into the station and I got on. In spite of the certainty that I had long since seen all the worst that New York City had to offer, I felt heavy with the dark reverberations of some spirit world. Through subway windows covered with scratched names, I watched that ghost make his way up the platform and I felt safer for being shut away from him. His gait was reckless. Yet somehow he was able to see beneath the hem of his cowl. He threw himself impulsively about the platform. Parochial-school kids scattered out of his path. My train lingered with the door open. Would he slip ultimately onto the car? Would he sit with me? Could I talk to him? Would he answer? What catalog of woes would he enumerate? And what would his voice be like? Was it my own voice, a mockery of my voice, flush with bad news about my failures? Don't be ridiculous. Death had no intention of riding my train. Death was not that methodical. The doors rattled shut, and as they did, as we pulled away, this familiar momentarily passed out of my waking thoughts.
Still, I began to imagine, in some other register of consciousness, that unlike the permanent vagrant population of my neighborhood — the Vietnam vet by Borough Hall, the guy with the crutch in front of St. Anne's Church — this apparition really was the projection of my troubled conscience, the personification called forth by a certain average, guilty, middle-class taxpayer. He was my homeless person, my particular deinstitutionalized person, my symbol, my poltergeist. By which I mean that the ghost of the subway station, by his one appearance, ushered forth in me things that long preceded him or his appearance on the platform; the ghost of my subway station was a ghost from my childhood, and perhaps a ghost from before my childhood, so strong was his symbolic heft; like all enduring images, he was spectacularly uncanny, he was something which should remain hidden but which has come to light, he was part of the lore of family, of the very constitutional fabric of family.
What did he tell me? Was he just a mother's son, a guy named Horace, maybe, or Linwood, or Parker, a guy from New England, uncomfortable in the city, didn't care for it, stuck here now, living in tunnels, out of touch with what family remained, if any? Was he part of one of history's diasporas? Had they all died in the fire in which he was scarred, in which he was disfigured? We have our prejudices about who our homeless are, about their origins and their logic, but are these prejudices really valid? Wasn't he related to all of us? or so I began to argue, in certain insomniac settings. Wasn't he related to the mariners of the thirteen colonies or to the immigrants of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this particular American, related to me, to my interlopers on the continent, authors of Manifest Destiny, sufferers of conscience, my settlers with their inventory of persecutions worried out like bad fevers through the troubled sleep of the centuries? Horace Cabot or Horace Adams or Horace Mather, or some such name, in his ragged cloak, sleeping badly, giving up on the consolations of family, village, and nation.
He began to appear to me regularly. Which period coincides with the beginning of these pages, the middle nineties. The Hooded Man on the R train. At Borough Hall, and later standing peacefully, arms folded, at the Canal Street Station or at City Hall. The Hooded Man, sentry, at Fifty-seventh. In the morning, in the evening, late at night, face covered. Emblematic. Occasionally placid, occasionally restless. I began to ask people. Had they ever seen this guy? Was anyone as preoccupied with him as I was? It turned out that everyone had seen him. He was a fixture in my New York City. On the way to rehearsal dinners and fancy society balls, book parties, press screenings, we had all seen him, dressed in our rental tuxedoes, wearing excellent perfumes, or maybe just in business casual, in sportswear, we had all found ourselves in the orbit of this celestial body. He'd made a celebrity of himself by zipping his hood, hiding his face. Or maybe that is simply my interpretation.
The disease of an evil conscience is beyond the practice of all the physicians of all the countries in the world, says W. E. Gladstone, or, according to an American thinker about inherited remorse: The world should recline its vast head on the first convenient pillow, and take an age-long nap. It has gone distracted, through a morbid activity, and, while preternaturally wide-awake, is nevertheless tormented by visions.
Readers in search of a tidy, well-organized life in these pages, a life of kisses bestowed or of novels written, may be surprised. My book and my life are written in fits, more like epilepsy than like a narrative; or: the process of this work is obsessive and like all obsessions is protean, beginning with the burden of conscience, moving through the narrative evocations of that sensation, shame, remorse, guilt, regret, into the story of a particular search for the original image of the veil in my life, the veil in the life of my family, the original image of facelessness, all this in an account of a five-day driving trip to Maine to locate the origin of the veil among Moodys, this five-day search woven like a braid into an account of my own difficulties, which are not entirely unlike the difficulties of the hooded ghost on the R train. Alas, this account never settles for the orderly where the disorderly and explosive can substitute, because obsession is not orderly, it is protean, like consciousness, it is one thing on a day sunny and cool with offshore breezes, quite another in winter, as in this preface, where there is description and then analysis, where there are disembodied quotations (some from Hawthorne, some from others) that float like ghosts of literature past. Encountering obsession is like encountering a whole person; obsession has its blind spots, it is occasionally inexplicable, it is worrisome, it is amazing and sometimes charming, it is both deceitful and forthright, it features recurrent and persistent thoughts, impulses, or images that are experienced, at some time during the disturbance, as intrusive and inappropriate and that cause marked anxiety or distress; you deal with obsession the way you deal with an unusual neighbor, uncertain about your right to demand his complete story all at once, satisfied with the way details are parceled out here and there, because that's how a life goes, helter-skelter, like crows rising from a tree where a hawk has just settled, famished. If birds will describe the obsession, I will break away to describe the birds I have seen; if baseball will describe the obsession, I will break away to speak of foul-outs and pop-ups of my life; because I am myself the matter of this book, you would be unreasonable to expend your leisure on so frivolous a subject, as Montaigne advises. Get to know my book the way you would get to know me: in the fullness of time, hesitantly, irritably, impatiently, uncertainly, pityingly, generously.
tript merrily beside their parents,
or mimicked a graver gait...
Fathers make fetishes of their cars. Mustang convertibles, spor-tutility vehicles, Jaguars, Corvettes (fathers receding into their middle years), Audis, Saabs, the restored Nash Rambler, the MG, the Ferrari, Lexus, Lotus, Lincoln Town Car; there are souped-up motorcycles and fathers are out in the driveway, on their backs, fumbling for wrenches.
I'm concerned here with patrimony, with all the characteristics attendant thereupon, with self and the vain reiteration of self implicit in fathers and sons, with national pride, national psychology, national tradition, with inheritance, with all the eccentricities that run in families, so you will have no choice but to get to know my dad (to the almost complete exclusion of my mom, unfortunately), as you will also have to wrestle with certain long-standing rules of dads. My particular dad, Hiram Frederick Moody Jr., didn't appear in my life until I was nine. He was in residence before that, sure, throughout the early years, but in a way more capricious than fatherly. He made his way around the premises. He had thinning dark hair and glasses (worn with embarrassment since early childhood). He was slim. His most frequent expression was one of furrowed skepticism. He dressed casually but never sloppily. My dad wore Top-Siders and cable-knit sweaters and tweed jackets with patches on the elbows. And tortoiseshell glasses. He was, compared to me, very large. He was a behemoth. My childhood interest in dinosaurs, in the T. rex or the pterodactyl, was really a metaphorical interest in dads. He dispensed incontrovertible orders. We executed these orders. But my father was also a cipher to me, a mystery, an enigma — at least until my parents were divorced in 1970. This was all in Connecticut, in the suburbs. In Darien, mainly. Sun-dappled lawns, sprinklers, station wagons. My parents had to go as far as Mexico to secure their divorce. My mom had to go. That I hadn't been aware of any difficulties between them says more about what awareness is to a child than it says about their difficulties. My parents didn't talk to each other very often; they would pass through the kitchen or the front hall or on the way to the bar in the den and acknowledge each other in a miserly way. They didn't yell or bicker. They mostly agreed in public. But they managed to avoid being in a room at the same time, and we (my brother and sister and I) were rarely with the two of them in the family constellation, that I remember, except occasionally on our sailboat. I have the pictures of their wedding to attest to the fact that they were married at the same location and moment, but that is the only evidence. Dad turned up late, most nights, after my bedtime. Or, if earlier, he secluded himself in front of the network news, in a recliner, with a cocktail (vodka martini very dry with twist) and dry-roasted peanuts. Occasionally, I fitted myself into a small crevice beside him on the vinyl recliner, my head upon his shoulder, and watched the news with him, not understanding a word — Vietnamese body counts, riots at the convention — not talking to my dad, as my dad didn't talk to me. I absorbed the warmth of his sweaters and enjoyed the irrefutability of the head of household. When he took us out on weekends to play games, to engage in athletic contests, to school us in competition, he seemed distracted. Especially when baseball was involved. Baseball was too slow. Baseball was a game of the past, a nineteenth-century game, an Indian game. A game from the old America. The pitcher is the only important player, he observed. Why was anyone interested in it? My father watched football on the television in the den; he watched the New York Giants and grumbled at their performances, at Frank Gifford. We tried to excel at football as a result, even my sister, because we wanted to rouse him from distraction. Out on the lawn. In the space between crab apple trees and dogwoods. The neighbors came by and played too. Somebody's feelings were always hurt. The rules had not been effectively stated! Someone was cheating! I often tried to declaim facts about football in order to impress my dad, like that the Los Angeles Rams were very good, but my heart was not in it. I wasn't even in possession of genuine facts.
Fathers use acronyms. Fathers refold maps; fathers like to appear as though they have infallible knowledge of direct routes between any two points. Fathers are purveyors of ethics.
My brother is hard of hearing on one side because of chicken pox contracted as an infant. Because of his deafness, he never much trafficked in single words. There was no dada or mama or doggy or kitty period in his language development. When he learned to speak at all — in sentences — it was late, and he had a lot to say. Before language, he had a sentient glow but was unnaturally silent. Of course, silence is an incredibly powerful conversational gambit. He understood everything but reserved judgment. One day he was sequestered in the nursery, in his crib, and I was visiting him there while he passed time coloring, scribbling webs of color onto a pad in the tones of the old Crayola box. As I watched and offered commentary, he impulsively selected a certain yellow crayon and began to draw on the wall of his room. An eggshell wall, or perhaps a very pale linen?hued wall. Flat finish. Soon Dwight had made some compelling galaxies there. On the wall. The Crab Nebula. The Milky Way. Here were some really large-scale wall murals of a color-field sort. Like Motherwells or Rothkos. I watched this. It was fascinating because I knew intuitively that these designs did not belong on the wall of his room, and yet when no retribution was forthcoming (Mom was down the hall), I began to think that maybe I was wrong, maybe there were no parental regulations on the subject of coloring on the wall. Maybe everything was permitted. Maybe pandemonium was allowed. Why hadn't we ever thought of this before? The wall offered many inviting planes onto which to fashion our creations! It's a family trait to court trouble with authority, to incline toward trouble as though trouble were the sweetest grog. We were just coming into our inheritance.
My brother, however, having made a yellow scribble almost a crib length in diameter on the wall of his nursery, having filled in this scribble with swooping arcs of yellow sun-worshipping icons, petroglyphs, became bored with the exercise. He went back to his pad or went back to playing with his mostly decayed blanket, his transitional object, which accompanied all his peregrinations. I was not bored, however. I was just getting interested. I climbed up into the crib, stepped around my brother's diapered body, chose a purple crayon (the opposite of yellow), and made a small palm-sized quadrilateral smudge on the wall. The two drawings, it seemed to me, went well together. They were complementary.
Then my mother happened on the action. She darkened the threshold at the very moment when I, with crayon poised, was beginning to decorate my brother's decoration. This linen-colored paint job just was not right. It needed a little zing. A little something. Dwight was busy with some incredibly adorable three-year-old business that had nothing to do with defacing the house. Smiling his unforgettable smile, his snake charmer's smile. I was drawing on his wall. To my mother, fresh from another responsibility, it must have appeared as though I had myself made enormous yellow orbits on the wall and had now, in purple, begun to set off this yellow with some of my ideas about color harmony. There was a long, dramatic silence in which the enormity of the tableau sunk in. My mother slowly, incrementally, took note. Perhaps she fell tiredly against the door frame. But soon she seemed to regain her verve. In order to shout. She was not a person who expressed her rage easily (she was small and soft-spoken), but in this instance she made an indelible impact with words that had often been used before but until now only preemptively: Wait till your father gets home.
My parents were not committed to corporal punishment, to its theory or practice, to forms and styles of beatings, the belt, the open palm, etc. The threat was rare in our house, reserved only for really dreadful childhood crimes: maltreatment of our animal friends, theft, burglary, bodily harm of neighborhood children. In my brother's nursery, with my action paintings behind me, I suddenly knew, however, that I had placed myself on the list for such treatment. I was going to be spanked. My first thought was: How do I pin this on Dwight? It should have been easy. After all: my brother couldn't speak. I could say he had done anything. He's hiding behind his disability! He stole your savings passbook! He strangled the dog! He made me do it! He did it all and I seized the crayon from him, anxious to spare the room the terrible yellow and purple scribbles! I was trying to supervise! My brother's silence, however, had a sweetness that could have won over any jury. Look at that smile. Look at that blond mop. Look at those blue eyes.
And my mother believed him.
I spent the afternoon skulking around outdoors, playing alone with sticks and scraps of trash. (I was the middle child, I was lefthanded, a brunet among blonds, I was covered with freckles, I was a mutant, a criminal, a foundling, a monstrosity. I was going to perish.) And then my father came home from the bank. He had barely loosed his tie, as I reconstruct it, before my mother, hands on hips, alerted him to the new interior decorating in my brother's nursery. Next, they stood in the doorway illumined by a dim ceiling light, silently inspecting the damage. Our circular artwork. This is how much it will cost to repaint or this is the weekend that will be lost to do it ourselves. My mother came to find me. I was guiltily attempting to hide in the family room, behind a Shaker chair. Your father wants to talk with you. My sister and brother avoided the whole contretemps. They knew what was up, and they were staying clear. Serious trouble was communicable. It might travel from one of us to another.
I refused to move. I screamed as my mother dragged me out into the hall. I grabbed on to furniture. The fullness of mortal terror emerged from me. I blamed Dwight. I blamed Meredith, my sister, who had been at school and had nothing to do with any of it. I blamed anyone who was at hand. I was misunderstood. I was unloved. I was a special case. I pleaded for my life, for mercy, for kindness. The whole neighborhood would know of my torture. Finally, my parents sequestered me in their bedroom. Pale gray walls. My father's suit pants were folded over the back of a chair designed to maintain their press. The closet in the bedroom was open, and inside cellophaned delicates shimmered. I remember the simplicity of Dad's hairbrush on the countertop. Tortoiseshell. Classic, masculine, functional. Was it plastic? Were plastics advanced enough for hairbrushes by the mid-sixties? The weapon had stiff brown bristles. Never before had it occurred to me to wonder which side of a hairbrush was used for a beating, bristle side or smooth surface, but now I knew. Bristles would have been too cruel. Or so I hoped. My father asked for no information on my wall-decoration project. This defendant was not encouraged to address the judiciary. In fact, my father didn't want to talk to me at all. He went through the business of taking down my trousers in silence. My skinny backside was exposed. And in some ways this was the worst part of the punishment, the Victorian spanking: the nakedness of it, the humiliation, the loss of self-determination. The spanking itself, one stroke only, was over instantly. Crimson indignity welled up in me alongside the sharp sting. I hopped around, gathering the complete text of my howl. I was left to hitch up my trousers myself.
My brother got off without a scratch.
Fathers may offer standard-issue praise, such as Attaboy! Stick with it! or Way to go! Fathers are able to dispense paternal wisdom even in a semiconscious or unconscious state. Fathers dispense advice that they spurned themselves.
He hated noise. The noise of kids, the footsteps of kids, herds of kids, mainly because he had gotten out of school, married immediately, spawned his first child ten months after marrying, two more by the time he was twenty-six. He had no idea how he was going to pay. How to get us through college, how to manage difficult teenage rebellions, how to play baseball with us (when he hated baseball), how to talk to children when they were clearly a separate species. The noise of kids made my father wild because he was not actually watching the New York Giants on television or the news or whatever he feigned watching. He was brooding about how he was going to pay. And plots must have abounded at the office. And there was the unhealthy quiet of his marriage. And there was the uncomfortable political ferment of the times. Up on the second floor of our house in Darien, the house where we lived while my parents were married, I would be throwing a pile of shoes, one by one, at my brother, trying to hit him in the head and knock him unconscious, and my brother would be crouched and screaming behind a desk, aiming a poison-tipped plastic spear at my face, when suddenly we would hear the sound of my father's voice in the stairwell, What the hell is going on up there? And we would fall into our shameful silence, an anxious silence so familiar as to have preceded our very births. Sometimes, intoxicated by the need to inflict bodily harm on each other, we ignored the initial warnings until we heard footsteps in the hall. Then at the door. And then the door would open.
Fathers speak in code. Fathers speak of equity or short positions or of the zero coupon or of the long bond; fathers speak of the need for a balanced portfolio; fathers shake their fists at the enduring misery of the bear market; fathers try to explain rate fluctuation, money supply, policy at the Fed. Fathers will have certain stirring anthems that they need to replay on the stereo again and again, such as anthems from Broadway shows or occasional hard-luck country ballads.
We were gathered around the fireplace, the kids, in Darien, one autumn evening when my mother explained that she and Dad couldn't get along anymore. His recliner, next to where we stood, was empty. To one side of the fireplace, the irons, the bellows. Wood smoke wreathed us. My mom was wearing plaid. I wasn't surprised by the direction of her remarks, though I had never seen any acrimony. There was a predictability about the whole discussion. A leaden disquiet to the scene. My brother was the only one who spoke up initially. By then he was a chatterbox. Don't get divorced! Don't get divorced! How did he know the word, since we were the first in the neighborhood to achieve that milestone? And though he stuttered much of the time, there was no stutter now. His plea was articulate and sad. My mother looked helpless. I tried to conceal myself behind my sister throughout the discussion, and this became my strategy later: Don't draw attention.
Mom journeyed south of the border and secured the paperwork, brought back certain gifts. I received a pair of ornamental spurs (they are somewhat rusted but still intact). My sister received a Native American hand drum that split along its length after a couple of New England summers. My brother's gift is lost to time. While my mom was in Mexico, Dad was in San Francisco, on business, or that was what we were told. Actually, he was banished. He brought me back a bar of Ghirardelli chocolate, a gigantic, monolithic chocolate bar weighing in at a couple of pounds. Therefore, we were rich in material distractors from the trouble of separation, but we were not distracted in full. When my parents' travels were over, so was their marriage. We anesthetized ourselves for days at a time. With television. While my parents drank. My mother slept on the couch for the next few weeks. They governed us in turns. Then we moved out. My mom and the three of us moved out, and there were the months of wrangling over visitation, child support payments. The bickering of lawyers. I had stomachaches. Just the words macaroni and cheese could produce a stomachache in me. All-beef franks. I could vomit over the idea of all-beef franks. I was the kid with the constant stomachaches, the kid who swilled Maalox and chomped Gelusil. And since my father was recovering from an ulcer himself, he not only identified with my woes but offered remedies and made dietary recommendations. Cream of Wheat and white toast. Mashed potatoes and chicken soup. It was an early bonding experience.
The arduous visitation schedule began, and we were in my father's company two Sundays and one long weekend a month and alternate holidays and August. We drove back and forth across Fairfield County on thruways. I knew every hill on the Merritt Parkway. I knew how many overpasses there were between Stamford and Darien. Lovely stone overpasses from the school of George L. Dunkelberger. On the first or second of these weekend visits, my father, at a tollbooth on the interstate, explained to us that he couldn't understand why my mother was doing what she was doing, and in the middle of offering this opinion, my father found that he could not go on. He covered his face with his hands. The car was stopped. People behind us swerved to change lanes. They honked. He wasn't the guy who had yelled at us about the noise. There had been a metamorphosis. He was in a bad spot. My mom was in a bad spot. My father had no idea how to cook for himself. His own parents were infirm. He had expenses: he was making $33,000 a year and owed a big chunk in child support and to my sister's private school, which later became three private schools. We lingered at the tollbooth, impeding traffic, in a stillness.
Fathers have a hard time quitting smoking.
He smoked Kents, a brand that doesn't seem to have the profile now it once did. He lit one then, in the car, fumbling with the lighter. I loved the smell of cigarettes newly lit in enclosed spaces, the perfume of sulfur followed by the ribboning of tobacco smoke, clouds lingering like halos around smokers, the meditativeness of cigarette paraphernalia. All suggested for me, as the New York City subway token once did, the seriousness and gravity of adults. The theatrical business of grown-ups. Ordering a coffee regular, putting on cuff links, lacing up wingtips, putting stamps on envelopes, presenting a credit card. This was the world I longed for when I was a kid, in the backseat of the car at the tollbooth. I didn't want to be a passenger. My brother and sister and I tortured my father by crushing whole cartons of his Kents, knocking the cigarettes out of his mouth, intoning quotations from antismoking propaganda we'd seen. Then all three of us became smokers. When my sister died, many years later, she was still hiding her smoking.
Fathers, unmarried, will pursue girlfriends.
The first girlfriend he presented to us was like an insoluble problem — like the existence of God, the location of the soul — upon which you founder in your undergraduate course work. My father arrived to pick us up one weekend, and the front seat of the red Firebird, the front seat over which we argued so relentlessly (only to cede it time after time to my sister), was occupied by this woman, this blonde, not our mother, our small, frail, indomitable mother, and this woman was going to treat us so well, in ways we never deserved nor understood, because it was so sad how much trouble we had been through, us kids, and we were so cute, and we would ignore her as a matter of course and we would constantly measure her against our mom, waiting for her to disappear so that we could move on to the art of making the next girlfriend feel just as miserable, holding all of these perfectly generous women in the dungeon of our contempt, inducing them to come to our Little League games and then upbraiding them for it, in our black, disconsolate moods, displayed for anyone who walked into the middle of our remorse and tried to soothe it with respect.
Fathers tell stories. Fathers are responsible for the very shape of storytelling; all stories issue from the mouths of fathers, and all laws about stories, including laws about the number of examples that will suffice to tell stories, how many times it is permissible to repeat jokes, and the role that rhythm plays in the deployment of anecdote.
For example, stories about working in the body shop, and how the one guy came in with the brand-new sedan complaining about an awful scuff on the hood, and how my father got up onto the hood to buff away the offending mark, to make the sedan shiny and new, only to leave a foot-wide circle on the hood completely free of its paint job. Or the stories about summers working in the psychiatric hospital, the catatonics, the hebephrenics and their laughter, the schizophrenic guy upon whom you were not to turn your back because he would pick up his lunch tray and attempt to break it over your head. Or the tales of Maine — my father's friendship, in Waterville, with the son of the driver of a Hostess truck, how they were allowed to ride in the truck and sample the baked goods, cupcakes, Twinkies, sweetmeats; how, after changing elementary schools for the fourteenth time, my father hid in a packing barrel to avoid going to school while my grandmother had the police combing the neighborhood looking for rapists, abductors, pedophiles. Or tales of army life during the Berlin Crisis, my father launching howitzer shells, my father, married with two kids (my brother wasn't born yet), getting ready to ship off to Berlin, where the Soviet and NATO tanks were parked headlight to headlight. Stories that were not always funny; stories that often had fear as an unstated dimension: my sister, outside Fort Bragg, North Carolina, swimming in a local creek, surrounded by water moccasins; my father, as a kid, deciding to take his skiff across a harbor to one of the islands off the coast of Maine during the preliminaries of a hurricane and getting lost, fogged in upon the water, so that he might very well have motored accidentally out to Europe — until he ran smack into some rocky Maine beach. Stories that got repeated until they acquired the mythological status of shaggy-dog stories, stories at which you smirked and cringed, so that in long car rides you would beg him to alleviate the tedium of unchanging landscapes with the one about the guy who would break the tray over the orderlies' heads. Fathers appear to us to love us without condition if only we can interpret their complicated language. Fathers move over expanses of time, across abysses of generations; fathers move across impediments, opening out, softening, becoming unguarded, giving away the rules of fathers to younger, angrier men; fathers, over time, become solicitous and kind, regretful and warm, sensitive and, even, gentle.
We had five different addresses in five years. With my mom. I was shy to begin with, wary, disappointed by human interaction. I took months to get up the pluck to start a conversation. I refused to be photographed. I was sick a lot. After a couple of relocations, I gave up worrying about it all. I crossed off the days on a calendar, waiting to move again. My brother and sister were untroubled by this, or so they have said, but for me what was broken was irreparable. I hungered for company, and this famishment was my first perception in the morning and my last before bed, and I couldn't remember feeling any other way, though there were people who loved me all around and there had always been. I was the focal point of cheating scams and extortion schemes at my public schools — Let's make Moody give us the answers! I cried spontaneously, I plotted the murder of my brother, banter seemed impossible, kids pushed past me as though I were spectral. My camouflage was perfect. But what I was good at was reading. It started in the sixth grade with The Old Man and the Sea. I read through most of Hemingway that year. Complete disclosure: I also liked J. R. R. Tolkien and anything having to do with horror or science fiction. Where I found that one reliable thing, that other thing, that elsewhere, that space unavailable to me in contests for masculinity and prestige and social standing, was in books. And this was where I met my dad. Where I encountered a guy I had never before been introduced to, really, whose preoccupation had always been numbers, numbers, numbers. October in Darien, and my sister and brother were outside, in the urgency of a chilly weekend evening, and I asked my dad to explain the epigraph to For Whom the Bell Tolls, and he located somewhere in his house a copy of selected John Donne and we sat and went over it line by line on the couch where my mother had last slept when she slept in what was now my father's house, lines about being a part of the herd, the rabble, the people of whom I knew nothing. About lineage too, or so I thought, how we are of one substance with the past, with countrymen, with peerage, with all who went before us, even in the nomadism of the late twentieth century, when families were easily sundered and people moved away from one another. No man is an island. And Hemingway wasn't the only American writer my dad knew about. He'd been an American literature major. I wasn't sure what this meant, but it sounded formidable. There was Hemingway on the bookshelves, there was Fitzgerald; there was Salinger (I quickly consumed The Catcher in the Rye and Franny and Zooey), John P. Marquand, Stephen Crane, Thoreau, Frost. I'm sure that my father, with this additional time to spend with us, this time of visitation, was canny enough to search out areas where my sister and brother could bask in his attentions too — I'm sure my brother learned to make the football spiral properly, I'm sure my sister learned to operate a manual transmission —but I felt, as a reader, that the bright light of parental affection had been turned on me for the first time. I was good at something.
It wasn't long before my father urged on me his favorite book, the book on which he had spent most of his college years, Moby-Dick. Illustratively, he began reading aloud a certain passage annually, over Thanksgiving dinner:
Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington. Let me only say that it fared with him as with the storm-tossed ship, that miserably drives along the leeward land. The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that's kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship's direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through. With all her might she crowds all sail off shore; in so doing, fights 'gainst the very winds that fain would blow her homeward; seeks all the lashed sea's landlessness again; for refuge's sake forlornly rushing into peril; her only friend her bitterest foe!
Know ye now, Bulkington? Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?
But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God — so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety! Take heart, take heart, O Bulkington! Bear thee grimly, demigod! Up from the spray of thy ocean-perishing — straight up, leaps thy apotheosis!
A strange passage to read at hearthside at the celebration of our nationhood. In which wonder and memories are unmentionable. In which domesticity is repudiated and the wild call of landlessness is celebrated in its stead. Better to perish in that howling infinite. After some years of this, my brother and I both got much of chapter XXIII by heart, and would quote from it while engaged in more pedestrian activities.
And in the midst of this homely education in the American classics, which stretched out over my early teens, my father must also have let me know about the coincidence with respect to Nathaniel Hawthorne of Salem, Massachusetts. He was a good writer, of course, not as good as Melville, but pretty good, Scarlet Letter is pretty good, except for where the allegory gets the best of the work, but what was most interesting about Hawthorne was that he had written a story about a relative of ours, a story about a Moody! Forefather of our clan. It was the kind of thing you repeated on the playground. I'm related to Davy Crockett! My grandfather owns a newspaper! My father fired off a howitzer! Some guy called Hawthorne wrote a story about our family! Dad had a complete set of Hawthorne, a nineteenth-century edition, and he therefore provided substantiation, produced the uncut leaf on which the facts were to be found, the first page of "The Minister's Black Veil" in the Twice-Told Tales volume of The Collected Works:
Another clergyman in New England, Mr. Joseph Moody, of York, Maine, who died about eighty years since, made himself remarkable by the same eccentricity that is here related of the Reverend Mr. Hooper. In his case, however, the symbol had a different import. In early life he had accidentally killed a beloved friend; and from that day till the hour of his own death, he hid his face from men.
He wore a veil? What did that mean? Hey, who cared? We were famous!
By the advent of the evening in which I sat down to discuss John Donne, my father had mostly retired from literature. He had responsibilities. He was a dad, clocking in and out, getting vested in the pension plan, writing the child support checks, taking the car to the shop, catching the 5:02, but according to my daydreams, maybe more than that too, maybe he was part of a great long line of dads, it seemed to me, extending back to intrepid religious protesters of the seventeenth century, to Carvers, Bradfords, Winslows, Brewsters, Allertons, Standishes, Aldens, Fullers, Martins, Mullinses, Whites, Warrens, Howlands, Hopkinses, Tilleys, and their ilk, the trash, as I have heard it put, that came over on the Mayflower, who wrote on their way to their New World, Haveing undertaken, for ye glorie of God, and advancement of ye Christian faith and honour of our King & Countrie, a voyage to plant ye first colonie in ye northern parts of Virginia, doe by these presents solemnly & mutually in ye presence of God and one of another, covenant, & combine our selves togeather into a civill body politick, for our better ordering, & preservation, & furtherance of ye ends aforesaid; and by vertue hearof to enacte, constitute, and frame such just & equall lawes, ordinances, acts, constitutions, & offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meete & convenient for ye generall good of ye colonie; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience, and if not one of these, then part of some other wave of immigration, some other American flotilla, part of something, I felt, after learning about Hawthorne, even if lapsed, even if a television-watching, martini-drinking, sports car?driving, American cheese?eating dad, even if estranged from ancestry, even then part of something, and I part of his tribe, though I was perhaps a disappointment to the ghosts that hovered around me: These stern and black-browed Puritans would have thought it quite a sufficient retribution for their sins, that, after so long a lapse of years, the old trunk of the family tree, with so much venerable moss upon it, should have borne, as its topmost bough, an idler like myself.
What trouble we got into next. I'll have more to say about it. The resistance to fathers is honorific, and resistance to fathers is always the last lesson in the instruction of fathers. Fatherhood knows that it is honored by teenage contempt. My sister was expelled from Rosemary Hall for curfew violations and finished up at Pelham High. She crashed my dad's car and pretended that it had nothing to do with drinking. My brother crashed my dad's next car. We stole booze from my father's liquor cabinet and stayed out all night and we walked the beaches, or went driving, looking, searching among contemporaries for lessons calling from the past. A whole sequence of fathers and sons and their relations looking backward for answers, finding, ultimately, that the most impossible father, with the most draconian set of regulations, was not in the living room preparing to lecture them, but cradled inside and impossible to dislodge.
Copyright © 2002 by Rick Moody
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