Over our dinner tonight, my father remarked that, when he was a boy, almost every decent restaurant had featured a cabinet of wonders of this kind; now almost none of them did. This observation prompted me to ask him other questions about the world of his boyhood, long ago. He told me about the Elevated trains of Brooklyn, about the all-day programs at his local movie theatre: a newsreel, a cartoon, a serial, a comedy short, the B picture, and, finally, the A picture, all for a dime. He talked about comic books, radio dramas, Astounding magazine, and the stories they’d all told: of rocket-powered heroes, bug-eyed monsters, mad scientists bent on ruling the world. He described to me how he had saved box tops from cold cereals like Post Toasties, and redeemed them by mail for Junior G-Man badges or cardboard Flying Fortresses that carried payloads of black marbles. He told me about playing games like potsy, stickball, handball, and ringolevio, and, for the first time but by no means the last, about an enchanted pastry called a charlotte russe, a rosette of whipped cream on a disk of sponge cake served in a scalloped paper cup, topped with a Maraschino cherry. He described having spent weeks in the cellar of his Flatbush apartment building as a young teen-ager, with some mail-order chemicals, five pounds of kosher salt, and a lantern battery, trying to re-create “the original recipe for life on earth,” as detailed in the pages of Astounding.
In the air-conditioned red darkness of Ricardo’s, across from the cigar case, the past and the future became alloyed in my imagination: magic and science, heroes and villains, brick-and-steel Brooklyn and the chromium world of tomorrow. My father, an inveterate list-maker, rattled off the names of games, trains, and radio shows, giving little in the way of description, yet it all came to life for me, as gaudy and vivid and fragrant as those boxes of cigars. Some quirk in me, in the wiring of my brain or the capability of my heart, enabled me to ride the bare rails of my father’s memory beyond the minimal contours that he hastily sketched—we had a patient to get to—and into the past. In my mind, in what I was just coming to understand, without even putting a name to it, as my imagination, I felt that I was or had been present on Flatbush Avenue for these moments of his vivid, vanished childhood. I did not know how I was managing the trick or what it might be good for—I was not even necessarily aware that I was doing it—but I knew immediately that this was my secret superpower.
Fair enough. So, what do I want to be? How to answer the patient, who is now taking long slow breaths, in through the nose, out through the mouth, as the drum of the stethoscope makes checkers moves across his back. I put away my plastic sphygmomanometer and snap the flimsy clasp of my counterfeit black bag. Let my father be the doctor—when I grow up, I want to tell the patient, I will become a guy who gets to live both inside and outside his own mind and body, travelling, without moving, into other worlds, other places, other lives. But I don’t know quite how to put it, or exactly what kind of work the proper deployment of my superpower might suit me for or entail.
“I’m probably going to be a mad scientist,” I announce to the patient, to my father, and, a little wonderingly, to myself. “And make the original recipe for creating life on earth.”
Fifty years on, though my father has long since retired from regular practice both as a doctor and as a father, I’m still chasing after that recipe for life and still, four times a father myself, doing part-time work as a son. At this point, to be honest, being my father’s son is less than a sideline; it’s more like a hobby, one of a number of pastimes acquired early, pursued with intensity, laid aside, and then only intermittently, over the years, resumed—origami, cartooning, model building, being a baseball fan, being a son. I think of my father at least once a day, try (but fail) to call him once a week, and, as required, afford him regular access to his grandchildren. Beyond that, the contours of the job turn vague and history-haunted. Outside the safe zone of our telephone calls, with their set menu of capsule film and book reviews, amateur political punditry, and two-line status reports on the other members of our respective households, the territory of our father-and-son-hood is shadowed by the usual anger, disappointment, and failure, strewn with the bones of old promises and lies.
Strange how a relationship—the relationship—that I understand as truly primal, as foundational, for good and for ill, to the construction of my self, my world view, my art, and my approach to being a father, should for decades now have consisted of and subsisted on a studied avoidance of any but the most ancillary and weightless interactions!
And yet it’s in my capacity as his son that I board a flight from Oakland to Portland, Oregon, home to my father for the past seven years, travelling on a full-fare last-minute ticket, hoping that he’s still alive when I get there. The day before yesterday, my father fell so ill, so suddenly, that he consented—for the first time that anyone could remember—to being hospitalized. “A hospital,” he always says, “is the worst place to be sick.” He’s home again for now, but I have been given reason to believe that if I want to see him again—and, of course, at the moment, seeing him is all I want to do—I’d better not hesitate. When the plane lands, I take my phone out of airplane mode with a sense of dread and dramatic irony, but there’s no fatal text message. I rush over from PDX to the apartment downtown, messaging with my stepmother and my half brother all the way.
When I called to say that I would be flying up to see him, my father made the expected but unexpectedly feeble attempt to dismiss my urgency as baseless and my visit as gratuitous, yet, as soon as I walk into the bedroom, I can tell he is happy to have me there. Although he seems to be out of danger for the time being (and will make a decent recovery from what eventually gets diagnosed as a nasty combination of kidney failure and bronchopneumonia), he freely acknowledges that he just came very near to death.
“The day before yesterday was bad,” he admits. “According to your stepmother, I was raving. Saying a lot of things that didn’t make sense.”
“How could she tell the difference?”
“That’s exactly what I said.”
I lie down beside him on my stepmother’s side of the king-size bed. The flat-screen television mounted on the opposite wall is tuned to TCM, which happens to be showing a film I first saw with my father, when I was eleven or twelve: Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis.” Every few minutes, my father is racked by spasms of gnarly-sounding coughing that leave his voice a ragged whisper; if he taxes it for more than a sentence or two, whatever he says dissolves into a fit of hacking and gasping for breath. It seems best, therefore, to avoid conversation entirely. We lie there for a long time, contemplating Lang’s quaint dystopia as it silently unravels. In the fifty-four years of our mutual acquaintance, I cannot remember our ever having sustained so prolonged a silence in each other’s company.
It turns out to be not the worst way to spend an hour of your life. But after a while I find myself thinking about the conversation we aren’t having. I start having it with him in my head:
This is a great film, but “M” is the masterpiece.
I just saw it again: incredible. But what about “Dr. Mabuse”?
A great film, too, but I think you have to give it to “M.” Have you ever seen “Hangmen Also Die!”?
A long time ago. I never really cared for the Hollywood films. You know Thea von Harbou was a Nazi.
Lang’s mother was Jewish. His wife was a member of the Nazi Party.
Hey, that would make a great sitcom.