Dear Mr. Sheik,

I’m writing for a couple of reasons. First of all, I recently bought this amazing tumbler with your likeness on it. I think you’ll agree that this is the best beer mug in all of existence. So in your honor, I’m having a giant beer.

I also have a few questions if that’s OK.

Have you ever considered competing on Iron Chef? It’s a cooking show where contestants try to make better food than the “iron chefs.” Whenever I hear someone refer to that show, I think of you on accident. (I’m a child of the ‘80s, so this makes sense.) And whenever I happen to catch an episode of Iron Chef, I’m inevitably disappointed because there are no suplexes or Boston Crabs; instead, it’s usually just a bunch of cooks hurriedly cutting up vegetables.

For the last few years I’ve scratched a meager living as a travel writer. If that conjures images of five-star luxury and all expenses paid cruises around the Baltic, then I apologize. The reality was more like a cut-price buffet at a roach-infested diner, squatting in the ass-end of nowhere. While there have been perks – lots of travel, a few unexpected adventures, some truly global friendships – there were plenty of bad times too. It turns out that travel writers dress like bums for a reason. Those guys you see scrawling on scraps of card at the side of the road aren’t begging for small change – they’re on assignment for National Geographic.

1. You are not, and will never be, a mother.

In this age of growing equality – sexual, racial, interspecies – men are still second class citizens when it comes to parenthood. Never mind that your sperm helped make the whole kid and caboodle: your lack of breasts and a vagina will forever be held against you. In fact, if you do grow breasts – or a vagina – it will only make matters worse. Men are still portrayed in the media as cartoonish fools, incompetent diaper-illiterate Stooges who are about as capable of looking after a baby as they are of making a casserole. Women, we are told, have an innate ability to nurture, which includes a genetic predisposition for cleaning up poop with moistened wipes, and a built-in Spidey-sense that detects squalling infants at a range of up to five miles. Men, meanwhile, are quite good at playing games. Or pulling faces. Or, in the case of the truly talented, both at once.

On this day of Mothers, let us not just remember flowers and cute cards, or Sunday Brunch. Let us remember:

  • Some women don’t want children. Womanhood ≠ Motherhood and vice-versa.
  • Some mothers love other women. Let them do it with the full authority of the state, and all the benefits and protections that the state gives women who have children with men.
  • Some fathers are the best mothers. Some fathers love other fathers. Let them do it with the full authority of the state, and all the benefits and protections that the state gives women who have children with men.

I sit with my two-month old son on my lap, surrounded by the detritus of parenthood – burp cloths, bottles encrusted with the grainy residue of infant formula, drool-glistening pacifiers, neglected toys – and try to dredge a diversion from my battered and sleep-deprived brain. Most days something rises to the surface. A silly rhyme, a Stewie-inspired internal monologue, a popular rock song with the lyrics changed to include the infant triumvirate of milk, pee and poop. But today, nothing comes. I’m an empty vessel, a vacant-eyed zombie casualty of the babyocalypse.

Numerology

By James B. Frost

Essay

Not long after my thirtieth birthday I went to see a numerologist. I did so on the whim of my new-age girlfriend, who purchased the session for me as a birthday gift.

“How do you remember someone when they are gone, especially when you’re not sure how well you know them?”

My Father’s House has all the hallmarks of a Ben Tanzer novel: the characters are socially aware and mired in pop culture; they struggle with coming to a deeper understand of themselves; they run and shoot pool and frequent dive bars and stack the coffee table high with The Nation, Cineaste and New Yorker magazines. This novel though, Tanzer’s sixth, has taken a markedly darker path.

It’s 4:35 AM and I’m running around the house like a chicken with its head cut off. Up and down the stairs. Up and down. Up and down. Back and forth. All the while the orchestral “William Tell Overture” by Gioachino Antonio Rossini is playing in my head as if plucked from a scene in a Looney Tunes cartoon when Elmer Fudd is chasing that whaskily wabbit Bugs Bunny through the forest with a double-barrel shotgun.

I shit you not.

Except I have made up impromptu words that go like this:

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

Rewind back a few minutes.

4:30 AM: My wife wakes me and informs me she’s in labor.

Not as in I-am-going-to-work-now labor.

Labor.

Child labor.

I-am-getting-ready-to-have-a-baby labor.

The conversation goes a little something like this.

WIFE: I think I’m going into labor.

ME: You?

You, question mark.

This is what my wife later tells me I say when all is calm and we’re sitting opposite one another in our hospital beds.

“You,” as if someone or something else in the room was getting ready to give birth.

My dog Motzie is fixed, so it’s obviously not her.

The television has no genitals, so it’s definitely not it.

I don’t have a vagina, so it’s definitely not me.

I’m pretty sure I would have recognized if it were me anyway. I hadn’t even bought any cute maternity clothing for work. It’s definitely not me.

And I have a penis.

That always makes giving birth difficult.

Unless you’re Thomas Beatie.

So there I am: 4:30 in the morning.

I wasn’t expecting this even though it’s been nine months coming.

Our first child isn’t due for two-and-a-half more weeks on April 27.

It’s April 11.

And the kid has my genes.

I’ve been determined there’s no way this baby is arriving on time if it has my genes. I’m never anywhere on time. I even have this funny scenario in which following my death—whenever that is—at my funeral, I don’t arrive on time.

It plays out like this: Everyone in church is mourning my loss. Tears are flowing. Family, friends – they’re all sobbing and boohooing their eyes out. The preacher stands in the pulpit at the podium or whatever it’s called in church. He looks out into the crying crowd. In walks a guy from the side door dressed in black. He’s holding a note. He walks over to the preacher and hands him the note. The guy walks back toward the side door and out. The preacher clears his throat and addresses the congregation, delivering the following:

“I’m sorry but I’ve just been informed Jeff is running a few minutes late and will arrive shortly. Until then, he has asked that his friends and family join in a hymn together. Please turn to page 368 in your hymnbooks as we sing, “Holiday in Cambodia” by Dead Kennedys, followed by an a capella rendition of “Nervous Breakdown” by Black Flag.

I’m putting this in my will. I’ve told my wife that if I die before she does, this has to play out exactly as I have written. If not, I’m going to come back as a ghost and haunt her. (Not really)

That shit will be hilarious.

Tears go to laughter. Quite the send off. Quite the exit. Just how I want it.

“Oh, that Jeff,” someone will say. “He sure knows how to get a laugh out of someone [pause] — even in death.”

Yet it’s April 11 and my kid is on the move down the birth canal.

I quickly pack a few clothes, toothbrush, toothpaste, clean underdrawers, deodorant, cell phone charger, and my bottle of Citalopram, which I call my chill pills because without my chill pills I’m fucking crazy I tell you. Crazy.

Not really.

I take it for depression. Have since about six months after my dad’s death.

Leukemia. Age 59.

I saw my dad die before my eyes over a two-month span, then held his hand as the machines went beep and his soul ascended.

Two years later I still can’t face the fact my dad’s dead.

And here I am, about to become a dad myself.

I run back downstairs, open up my laptop, and type an e-mail to my boss.

“Not gonna be in this week. Having a baby. Not me. My wife. Some proofs will be coming in if you could take a look at them and sign off. They’re good to go. If you need to make any changes (which you shouldn’t), the InDesign files are located in the Comm. Info folder. Here’s my cell number if you need me but don’t call me for the next couple of hours. In labor. Not me. My wife. Holy crap!”

Rewind back again to me sitting in bed, my wife delivering the news she’s in labor.

“Did you call the hospital yet?” I ask.

“No. I will now.”

She does.

“Come in at 7:30,” they tell her. “Come sooner if your body tells you to.”

Flash forward less than two hours later.

6:20 AM: “I think we need to go now,” my wife tells me as I finish up my e-mail to my boss.

“Oh crap, I haven’t eaten anything yet.”

Yes, that’s right. I’m thinking about food at a time like this.

I have no idea what I’ve done over the past hour-and-a-half. Why the hell have I not eaten?

“We can stop by McDonald’s if you want.”

“We can? Are you sure there’s enough time? I’d rather you get to the hospital than me a chicken sandwich and extra hash browns.”

At this point, my wife is freaking me out with her breathing.

“Breathe in and out like they told us at our child birthing classes,” I say, trying to soothe her. But on the inside, me, I’m hyperventilating. On comes the “William Tell Overture” again. Bugs Bunny shoots down a rabbit hole.

Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God God God
OH MY GOD… Oh my God God God

“Yes. We have time,” she says. “You need to eat.”

See how wonderful wife my wife is? Always looking out for the nourishment of her husband even at times such as this. She continues:

“You can get into a funk when your sugar is low.”

Now the truth comes out.

“I don’t want you in a bad mood with all this about to happen. It could be a long day, a long couple of days in the hospital.”

She’s right. I do get into a funk when I don’t eat on time. And I eat all the time. Like six meals a day. It’s the only way I can balance my sugar. Even when I played basketball in college I was like this. Before the game in the locker room, I’d eat a Snickers and drink a half bottle of orange juice while Coach gave his words of wisdom. At halftime, I’d eat another Snickers and finish off my orange juice. Otherwise, I’d get the shakes – like Julia Roberts in Steel Magnolias.

But I’m not diabetic. I’m hypoglycemic.

I put my dog in her crate, tell her to be a good girl, that she’ll have a new best friend soon, and scat.

6:30 AM: We stop by McDonald’s. I pull up to the drive-through window and order a chicken sandwich, two hash browns, and a large Coke.

“$4.29. First window please.”

I pay. Onward to window two.

It’s taking longer than usual to fulfill the order. I’m a very patient person, probably too patient in my day to day life (they say patience is a virtue), but I want to say, “Can you guys please hurry it up? Just this one time. It’s an emergency. My wife is in labor.”

But I imagine the 18-year-old kid who is waiting on me, stop and say rather coldly, “Then why the fuck did you stop for breakfast dickhead?”

And he’d have a point.

A very valid point.

Out comes my combo meal. Peace and chicken grease Mickey Dee’s. We’re off to Martha Jefferson Hospital.

I use this as an excuse to drive like a bat out of a hell down 29, just like in the movies. Then I picture a cop fly up behind me with his siren on to which I stick my arm out of the window and wave for him to pull up along side me. Then I say, “Officer, my wife is having a baby. Can you please escort us to the hospital?”

He nods yes, flashes his lights, and I roll my window back up, turn to my wife and referencing the cop, say, “Sucker.”

We (“we” as in me following behind sucker cop) bolt down the highway, going through red lights like it ain’t nobody’s business. I smile for the asshole traffic camera they just installed at the intersection of Rio Rd. One day I’ll put the photo the Police Department sends me in my baby’s scrapbook.

But none of this happens. Because this isn’t the movies. It’s real life.

But I continue to drive like a bat out of hell, weaving in and out of traffic, beeping my horn at any car in my way and yelling at them, “Get out of the way you slowpoke prick. My wife’s having a baby.” A very cautious, alert bat out of hell I might add. Okay. You got me. You called my bluff. So I’m not really driving like a bat out of hell. I’m going 55 MPH in a 45 (technically, I am breaking the law) and there is hardly anyone on the road. I’m not weaving in and out of traffic. I’m not beeping my horn. I’m not yelling.

6:45 AM: We arrive at Martha Jefferson Hospital on Locust Avenue. I pull up to the Emergency Room entrance. A security guard approaches and opens the door for my wife. He tells her where to go. I tell him where to go (hell) and to stop looking at my wife’s cleavage (she’s pregnant. Her breasts are full of milk, nourishment for my soon-to-be first child, you stinkin’ perv). Actually, I do none of that either. He isn’t even eyeing my wife. He’s very polite like some child’s nice grandpa.

I park the car, strap on all our bags like I’m some oversized coat rack made of pine, and make my way to the Maternity Ward.

It’s Go Time…


While in college, I tutored the following subjects for two years: Anatomy & Physiology, Biology (general and Advanced), and Microbiology. Yet there is one area I was never made privy to: the timeline of the umbilical cord. Going into the last weeks of childbirthing class with my wife, I suddenly find it psychologically incommoding I never learned that following labor and delivery, the umbilical cord is not cut all the way down to the bellybutton.

Yes, all the way down to the bellybutton.

Maybe you’re like me and didn’t know this.

Or maybe you aren’t.

Suddenly, I feel like the dumbest person on Planet Earth for not knowing this.

For the last 36 weeks, I have been a bit scared of having the honor of cutting my baby’s umbilical cord.

“Who needs scissors,” I told my wife when she was around 24 weeks. “I’m using my teeth. Look at these incisors.”

Then I grabbed the air with two hands as if I was holding an invisible rope and started gnawing.

Humor comforts me in times of the unknown.

Note to future dads: Your wife probably won’t find this amusing.

What if I didn’t cut far enough and my baby had an outie? I remember back in the summer days of my youth thinking that kids at the pool with outies looked funny.

Or what if I cut too close and my baby has the ultimate innie, a three-inch deep crater that will collect lint for all eternity? All this time, I’ve been terrified I would cut the umbilical cord much too close to my baby’s stomach and cause some nightmarish infection, thus subjecting my first born to weeks of antibiotic treatment and various hypoallergenic ointments 3x a day.

All because I cut the umbilical cord too close to the bellybutton.

And it would be all because of me.

Her dad.

Her hero.

The man she would grow up idolizing and compare all men to who ultimately could never measure up .

Or at least this is what I like to tell myself.

Then I learn the real story: that after I cut the cord—not all of it, just some of it—a clamp is placed on the leftover upright noodle and remains clamped until a week or so later when said umbilical cord dries up and falls off.

“If you’re lucky,” our childbirth instructor said, “You’ll go to pick up your baby after a nice, long rest and you’ll see the umbilical cord lying there in the crib.”

Just lying there?

In the crib?

Like a fat earthworm that has baked in the hot sun?

Shouldn’t someone have sent out a mass e-mail to all expecting parents that along with taking your baby home, you also take home part of the umbilical cord?

Look, I’m not grossed out by this.

Actually, I am slightly.

But why is it I didn’t know this?

When I told my mom that Allison and I were expecting she didn’t tell me about the umbilical cord.

Neither did those Biology textbooks.

Then again, we never did get to the very end.

Science is sort of like history in that regard. You never get to the Civil Rights Movement or Vietnam, nor do you get to the nitty-gritty in concern to the timeline of the umbilical cord.

Whereas I’m the youngest of two children, my wife is the oldest of four. She knew this already. Maybe all women do. Maybe this tidbit of information is something all women receive when they get their ears pierced.

Allison’s youngest sibling is nine years younger than her.

“I remember when I was a kid, Emily [her sister] and I would go into the nursery each morning to see if Carrington’s umbilical cord had fallen off yet,” she said to me while we were eating some 80/20 Angus Beef hamburgers I’d cooked up.

“What do you mean you’d go in and see if the umbilical cord had fallen off?”

“It dries up.”

“What do you mean by ‘it dries up’?”

“It dries up and falls off.”

“Falls off?”

“Yeah, falls off.”

“The umbilical cord?”

“What did you think happened to it?”

“It stayed at the hospital . . . with the placenta.”

So let this be a lesson to all you expecting first-time fathers out there. When you go in the nursery to snatch up your baby for a good rocking and see what appears to be either a turd or a chewed up cigar in the crib, Red Auerbach has not returned from the dead and been watching over your baby at night. That’s your baby’s dried up umbilical cord stump.

And let this also be a lesson that I am apparently not the right man to talk to in regard to tutoring you for any Biology class, especially Anatomy & Physiology.

As for me, I guess it’s about time I get some shuteye. As the story goes, there isn’t much of that in my near future. But it’s all gravy.

Here’s to first time knowledge and dried up umbilical cord stumps.


That title. What were you thinking?

Yeah, the subtitle is really long. I wrote it early one morning after a seasickening deadline bender. I’d just finished the last chapter and was supposed to deliver the manuscript by the time Viking’s offices opened for business. It was already around 8 and I’d been up since 4. The working subtitle was “An Accidental Odyssey,” and I still kind of like that one, but I knew it was too coy, insufficiently expository. No way was I going to get to keep it. So I started playing. And I had in mind these 18th and 19th century shipwreck narratives. They were so popular they constituted a literary genre, Naufragia, from the French for shipwreck. They had subtitles the lengths of paragraphs. You can see for yourself. I quote one in full on page 251. I still wasn’t sure whether Viking would let me keep my own long subtitle, but god bless ‘em, they did.


No. Not the subtitle. The title. What were you thinking? I mean, Moby-Dick is this epic masterpiece, and you, my friend, whatever you are, are no Herman Melville.

It started as a kind of joke. I chose the title before I wrote a single word, which is unusual. Once I committed to it, I had to take the joke seriously. I knew that my voyage had to be a grand one. I often wished that for my first book I’d chosen a smaller project, a nice little monograph of an essay on oh, I don’t know, the pleasures and perils of bicycling in New York. But I love Moby-Dick, love the so-called informational chapters as well as the action sequences. I think most of all I love the dynamics in Melville’s prose, the swells and troughs, the storms and calms, how it mixes the high and the low, the philosophical and the naughty. I used to tell my students to look out for the fart joke in chapter 1, “Loomings,” (hint, it has to do with the pythagorean maxim). Then, too, Ishmael is an insular Manhatto, like I was, a former schoolteacher as I was. I couldn’t resist. I carried a tattered, annotated copy around with me during my travels and kept it on my desk and sought inspiration in its pages. It sustained as well as daunted me. Frankly, I’d almost to prefer to talk about Melville’s book than mine.


Sorry. That’s not what The Nervous Breakdown asked for. I will let you quote a favorite passage, so long as it’s not one of the many that appear in the pages of your book.

So hard to choose! But when my hypos get the better of me, I find particular solace in these two. First a long, gorgeous, voyage of a passage:

“Would to God these blessed calms would last. But the mingled, mingling threads of life are woven by warp and woof: calms crossed by storms, a storm for every calm. There is no steady unretracing progress in this life; we do not advance through fixed gradations, and at the last one pause: — through infancy’s unconscious spell, boyhood’s thoughtless faith, adolescence’ doubt (the common doom), then scepticism, then disbelief, resting at last in manhood’s pondering repose of If. But once gone through, we trace the round again; and are infants, boys, and men, and Ifs eternally. Where lies the final harbor, whence we unmoor no more? In what rapt ether sails the world, of which the weariest will never weary?”

The “pondering repose of If”! Then, secondly, an aphoristic one:

“There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.”


I said “one.” No more Melville for you. Back to the ducks. Do you collect them?

No. But people have started giving them to me. For well-intentioned reasons. And I feel kind of obliged to keep them, but I really would  rather not acquire any more. I would say, however, that duckie collecting is, like most things, more interesting than you might think. On a trip that didn’t make it into the book, I visited the woman who owns the Guinness record-setting duckie collection, Charlotte Lee. She turned out to be this smart, interesting sociologist who’d written a sociological study of duck collectors.


Quick. One image that you remember from your travels that you didn’t manage to find a place for in the book. First thing that pops into your head.

The old part of Guangzhou. Back streets like corridors in a maze. On a window grating someone had hung out heads of lettuce, presumably to dry.


Are you working on something new?

The dread question. The answer is yes, but I’m going to be evasive by being facetious. One review called my book “the Moby-Dick of drifting ducks,” which is a nice way to describe it, but which if you pause over it makes “drifting ducks” sound like a literary subgenre. My wife said, “Next you can write The Lady Chatterly’s Lover of drifting ducks.” We made a kind of parlor game of it, coming up with the other books in my burgeoning franchise: The Duckameron. Duck Quixote. My personal favorite: Duckleberry Finn.


There’s much about fatherhood and childhood in the book. One of your two sons even turns up as a kind of recurring character. What does he want to be when he grows up?

His plans keep changing, of course. Recently, he’s decided to be the host of a televised cooking show. But once he told me that he was going to be a scientist so that he can go to Antarctica and bring things back for me and his mother. Another time, god help him, he said he wanted to be “a papa and a writer.” He even had a great book title picked out.


What was it?

The Frogs of Australia.



Start with typical.Stand in front of your kitchen cupboards wondering what you’re going to make for dinner.Something quick and healthy and delicious and still quicker to clean up.Haul out the same pots and pans you just washed from lunch.Get the food into small, yammering mouths through concerted negotiations or last-ditch ultimatums, then remind three times about both the importance of brushing teeth and not unrolling the toilet paper.Then shuffle the little bodies now emitting their last crescendo of energy into bed where you read a book and sing a song and answer correctly a question about what you will do to save everyone if a volcano full of sharks erupts in the middle of the night and then kiss goodnight.The lights-out silence that follows reverberates against the walls with such a contrast to the uproar of the day that you’re left too disoriented to clean the kitchen or speak in complete sentences.Wake up the next morning much earlier than you thought possible and immediately throw together a breakfast and dress everyone and comb hair in a way that must be as painful as a Civil War hospital amputation because of the wails that accompany each stroke, and then speed up to get the shoes and coats on in time to reach the school entrance before the final bell, after realizing you didn’t match the socks with the top and never combed your own hair which might explain some of the looks from the teacher’s assistants at the door.But it doesn’t matter now because you’ve got a day of folding the socks (the ones that do match) into neat piles ahead of you and now it looks like mildew is growing in the shower which you’ll need to be on your knees scrubbing before it’s time to get the littlest one, who has developed a cough in the two hours since you last saw her that you should probably make a doctor’s appointment for just to be on the safe side.Before that though, it’s lunchtime where you’ll be back to the cupboards pondering the exact same question you didn’t have a good answer to yesterday.The only thing you can say, to yourself and your starving children, is “be patient.”

One day over the summer, as my daughters and I were passing through my parents’ apartment on our way to the back yard, we noticed, through the windows, that the next-door neighbors were pulling up all the grass from their yard and putting in Astroturf. My father, who lives downstairs from us and whose kitchen we always have to walk through if we want to enter or exit by our back door, was sitting in his usual chair in a V-necked T-shirt stained with spaghetti sauce and a pair of boxer shorts, reading Star magazine. He was, at that time, eighty-seven years old. He ignored us as we passed behind him on the stairs. He was reading aloud to himself about Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton.

Though I should have known better, for some strange reason I said, “Look, Dad. The Victorines are putting fake grass in their yard.”

My father looked up abruptly. He had not realized we were there, and seemed surprised to see us. His eyes followed my pointing finger and he saw the neighbors laying their Astroturf. “What the hell are they doing out there?” he asked.

“Putting in fake grass,” I repeated. I had already been speaking loudly, but now I raised my voice loud enough that the neighbors themselves probably could hear the conversation. Bartender ear, my mother called this back in the days when my father’s not seeming to hear anything we said was elective on his part. He had listened to drunks repetitive ramblings for so many years that he learned simply to tune voices out. He lived to a private Stan Getz riff in his head.

Now he looked at me accusingly. “Fake rats?” he shouted. “What do you mean, fake rats?”

My daughters started laughing. “Fake grass!” they shouted in unison. “Fake grass, Papa! Grass.”

“Grass,” I explained, over them. “You know, green stuff that grows on the ground.”

But my father wasn’t looking at us, which may have meant that, since he couldn’t see our lips moving, he didn’t even know we were speaking to him. Some days, his ears work better than others, but those days are fewer and farther between.

“Fake rats!” he cried indignantly. “What do they want to do something like that for?”

“Dad,” I began. My daughters and I were all, I confess, basically guffawing into our hands by then. “Dad, not rats! Nobody wants fake rats on their lawn. We’re talking about grass. G-R-A-S-S!”

“Jesus Christ,” my father said, turning back to Lohan and Hilton in Star. He was finished with us and was muttering to himself under his breath. “Fake rats,” he hissed, shaking his head while his eyes perused the pictures of twentysomething celebrities. “I never heard of such a thing.”

***

My father was not always like this. He used to wear a Brooks Brothers raincoat. He used to have a penchant for tea and marmalade—while other Italian men in our blue collar neighborhood wanted to be Brando, or just Joey Iupa, my father the Anglophile aspired to Cary Grant. Though he went bald in his early twenties, he never had that greasy look some men get. He always smelled good, of Polo cologne. I suspect that, to ward off any appearance of shine, he used to use Old Spice powder on his head.

***

About ten years ago, my mother began speaking to me in a conspiratorial tone. She began opening conversations with lines like, “Your father has bought this cookie jar in the shape of a suckling pig and is keeping it on his dresser. It has no cookies in it—he just thinks it’s a nice decoration.”

A product of the Great Depression, my father began to hoard cans of ravioli under his bed.

His hearing failed, but he insisted my mother and I merely mumbled. When we insisted this was not the case he said, “Oh Jesus Christ, you two never say anything interesting anyway.”

Apropos of nothing, he would sometimes rail about things like why pregnant women wear skimpy tops.  “See, here’s Gwenyth Paltrow from a magazine and even she looks like shit, women shouldn’t do that!–don’t they know how bad it looks?”  His face would grow red with frustration when in thirty-five years of knowing him I had never before heard him voice an opinion on maternity fashion, or anything to do with pregnancy, or really even raise his voice except when driving.

One day five years ago, he couldn’t move his foot–which was already riddled by peripheral neuropathy so that he experiences his feet as “round,” without the feeling of his toes or heels—off the gas pedal and had to drive his car into a sign post to avoid harming anyone on the road. After that he didn’t drive anymore, and my mother, in her seventies, got her driver’s license for the first time, and something irrevocable shifted between them.

He needed a cane to walk, but was too proud to use one, so instead he began to fall down a lot. Then he used the cane, but soon needed a walker. The week of his 85th birthday he fell on the way to the toilet and fractured his pelvis. He contracted pneumonia in the hospital and hallucinated being in the apartment of one of his many long-dead friends, Tommy Catalano, and kept saying, “What the hell did Tommy do to these walls?” He didn’t recognize my infant son and called him a “big headed little German who’d turn you in on a dime.” The doctors essentially wrote him off for dead—an eighty-five-year-old man with a broken hip and pneumonia is practically a cliché for which they offer you a special funeral rate—but against all odds he was home within the week, albeit unable to move and wearing a diaper. Then he was stricken with some of the nastier side effects of massive doses of antibiotics; we spent Christmas 2006 changing his diaper almost on the hour while he screamed at the ceiling, begging for the Death he had cheated once again.

He never walked again without a walker. Sometimes, even with the walker, he still falls. As winter snow and ice hit Chicago early this year, he announced he would just not be “going out” anymore.

When my parents were first dating, my father would do things like drive my mother to New York so she could taste the cheesecake. They would drive all night, and once they got there and downed a slice, my father would want to go out to the jazz clubs, and then he would drive home all night into the next day to make it home to work at his bar by evening.

Now, my husband, kids and I spend a great deal of time on a 160 acre farm only a few hours away in Wisconsin. It has a dilapidated old red barn my father would love—he used to stop at roadsides and take photos of barns just like that when I was a kid. But he has never been to the farm—he has never seen “our” red barn. Long car rides hurt his back too much now, and he has difficulty controlling his bladder and can have accidents if cooped up too long. We try to convince him that we’ll pull into every rest stop we see—every twenty minutes if he likes—but he is unconvinced. “Oh honey,” he says. “What am I going to do when I get there anyway? I don’t want to go anywhere anymore. I can’t even walk.”

When someone says something like this to you, you want to turn into a cheerleader. You want to protest that just sitting on the wide front porch and watching the children play in the overgrown grass, that surveying the poetic barn, would somehow be enough. But who are you to say what is enough? My father has already hit the point of “enough,” but then it left without him, and he is still here.

When I was young, my father loved to make fun of old people, to my mother’s horror and my amusement. He would shuffle around like Tim Conway and make puttering noises and twitch his hands theatrically when drinking his tea if there were gray-hairs nearby. The ironic truth is, even his most dire imitations of the elderly did not do justice to what it is like right now just trying to watch my father make it from his bedroom to the kitchen table in the morning: a ritual involving a walker, an entire pill case of tablets to lessen the pain from his osteoarthritis, his spinal stenosis, his temporal arteritis, and his peripheral neuropathy. His journey some twenty feet involves a string of repeated expletives (Oh boy oh boy oh Jesus Christ this fucking body boy oh boy oh boy), and an obsessive compulsive need for a milkshake involving ice cream, milk and bananas.  To be clear: the shake has absolutely no relationship to his medical requirements, yet he will not take his pills without this shake, so that if it is midnight and there are no bananas in the house, my husband and I will get a call to go and fetch some or otherwise the routine cannot be followed come morning. If there are no bananas; if my parents are out of milk, hysteria ensues.

***

The first half an hour of my father’s day goes something like this: He sits in his kitchen chair reading a gossip magazine, maybe Star or People or something of that ilk—something he never would have bought or even perused as a younger man, when he read Royko religiously but otherwise was not much of a reader; when he was into Lenny Bruce and foreign films and smoky jazz and All in the Family and Carson. Now, my father could tell you the latest weight gain of some obscure starlet I wouldn’t even recognize if she fell on me in the street. He reads these magazines because they are “easy,” and nothing else in his life is easy anymore. Early mornings, when he first begins to read, he does so silently like a normal person. If he can read “in his head” and actually comprehend what he is reading, then he knows better than to stand up and try to walk yet, because the pain in his body will still be too intense. But as half an hour goes by and my father’s regimen of pain pills begin to kick in, the words he reads become blurry to his eyes and his mind, and he begins to speak them aloud to keep track. “Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting again,” he might read. (They know each other, right? Or is that Nicole Ritchie? My father would know the answer to this.) Still, he dares not get out of the chair. Finally, reading aloud doesn’t really work either. His brain has become so fuzzy that the sentence sounds more like this: “Lindsay Lindsay Lindsay Lohan and Paris Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton and Paris Hilton Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are fighting are fighting are fighting again.”

The pills have done their job. Now he can stand up and make it to the shower. Now, his daughter–can you believe she’s forty!–and his almost-teenage granddaughters can traipse downstairs on their good legs and talk to him about fake rats in the neighbor’s yard, and who knows why people do the things they do, and who cares anymore anyway? But where is the baby—why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her; the little boy they named after him, with his ringlets and his big eyes, who looks so much like his daughter at that age, back when he called her Little Flower—where is the baby, when the only reason he can bear to sit here at this table and get through another day is for a glimpse of him. Why doesn’t his daughter have the baby with her—she leaves the baby too much, she works too much, runs around too much, the baby will grow up so fast, she’ll see, then it’s over, then the kids are all gone, even if they live right above you, still, they are gone.

Another day begins.

When my father and mother met in 1957, he gave her a fake name. John LaSalle, he called himself, claiming he was visiting from New York to help out a friend who had just opened a bar and needed an experienced hand. He was only in Chicago for a few weeks, he claimed, so obviously he wasn’t looking for anything “serious.” This was, apparently, good enough for her.

My mother was twenty-five, which seems preposterously young in 2009, but in 1957 most of her girlhood friends were already married with children in elementary school, whereas my mother lived alone in a studio on Rush Street, occasionally singing and playing piano in jazz clubs (though she could not read music), working as a secretary by day, and sometimes falling into pits of depression she describes as “black periods,” in which she wrote morose poetry full of lines like “the faltering foot of man who wades/into the guideless brew” and “go my chain.” She had, though you were not supposed to admit it in those days, been through her share of men, including a broken engagement in her late teens. She had traveled the country with two traveling salesmen who dined on steak and made her eat burgers, selling No-Doze machines to truck stops. In California, she had briefly worked as a ballroom dance instructor and been so poor she lived on Hershey bars, but now she was back in Chicago, where she had been raised, with a stable job. Though not thin by today’s standards, my mother was a beautiful woman, with a striking resemblance to a young Isabella Rossellini. Her boobs were something to behold. A semi-famous actor once tried to acquire her as a mistress, but she was not cut out for that life. She had too rigid a moral center, or too much fear, or both, to her betterment or her detriment.

Though this is not ostensibly “about” my mother, I guess what I’m trying to say is that she, while not perfect, was in my father’s estimations “above his station.” Even now that she is seventy-seven, he seems unclear what exactly she is doing with the likes of him . . . though as with most men, this does not mean he has always treated her well. Besides his lacking hair and being older, my father had never lived outside Chicago or even graduated from the eighth grade. More importantly, he was shy to a fault whereas my mother was—and still is—the type of person almost everyone immediately likes. She is outgoing and palpably kind, and she asks a lot of questions (which seem polite and interested if you don’t know her well, albeit bordering on Inquisitional if you know her very, very well.) She’s easy-going and accommodating, avoiding confrontation as though it were a venomous snake coiled at her heel, but that her eternal optimism makes her believe she can easily sidestep and outrun. In public in their early days, she was taken perpetually for his daughter: a mistake they milked with rare and comic perversity.

Yet for all her smiles and pleasantries, my mother is a deeply secretive, easily wounded person who prefers getting to know others to being known herself. She had always been popular as a teen, and into her early twenties—a party girl who won a contest for the prettiest legs; who danced on car roofs in the rain with other bawdy young girls and lived in apartments with a string of roommates . . . but by her mid-twenties, many of those friendships had faded away. Her relationships (platonic and romantic) seemed based more on surface fun than true intimacy, so by the time she met my father in 1957, she was acutely lonely, though she may not have put it that way, or even realized it. She was, as they say, “ripe.”

They met on a blind date. A friend of my dad’s (who was, incidentally, an ex boyfriend of my mom’s) gave him her number after my father chauvinistically proclaimed that women knew nothing about jazz—the fellow said my mother could give him a run for his money. So they met at a coffee shop at two in the morning, because that was when my father got off work. Their conversation lasted into morning, when they moved to the restaurant across the street for breakfast. Afterwards, I am fairly sure they adjourned to my mother’s apartment for sex, though I was (thank god) never told this explicitly. Certainly, they could not have gone to my father’s place, as he lived with his parents in the same small two-bedroom in which he’d been born, in a rundown Italian neighborhood far from glamorous Rush Street. My mother, of course, did not know this. She did not even know he was Italian—which, if you have ever seen my father’s nose, does not speak highly of her powers of observation. When a couple of weeks later, my mother once called him at his “friend’s” bar to tell him she’d be late for their date, she was told there was “no John LaSalle” there, but that the owner, John Frangello, might know who he was and where to find him.

Hence, my father’s ass was busted—my mother recognized his voice and slammed down the phone in fury. Later that night, my father showed up at her door with champagne and cheeseburgers, and for reasons lost to history yet eternal among lonely women in any time, my mother forgave him.

Four years later, they married. If they are both still living in August 2011, it will be their fiftieth wedding anniversary. My father would be eighty-nine.

Two quick details about their courtship, just because:

1) They not only met based on a lie of identity, but married based on one. In order to snag my mother a vacation from work—her boss was rather smitten with her and never gave her any time off—my parents told the man that they were going on a honeymoon to Europe. Only once the other secretaries at her office threw her a shower and gave her presents did my mother realize that everyone would expect her to come back from vacation with a new surname. She had two options: quit her job, or get married. As an Executive Secretary, her position was a coveted one for a girl with no college degree, so it seemed a shame to lose it. “Well then,” my father said, “we’d better get married,” and off to City Hall they went.

2) My father had a predilection for oral sex and was obsessed with giving it to my mother. (Why my mother told me this would obviously be fodder for another post, entitled “Too Much Information: Shit My Mother Told Me That I Never Needed to Know,” but there it is.)

But again, as this is not the story of my mother, neither is it the story of their dating years, their sex life or—later—the lack thereof. Those are stories that are fun, or at least funny, to tell, and that I have explored somewhat in my fiction. Today, however, is my father’s 88th birthday. And so, perhaps, this is a harder story to tell: one that eludes me even as I am beginning it. The story of how you get from point A to point Y. This is a story of knowing point Z—end point—is hovering nearby, forever around the corner, yet not precisely when it will hit. The story of the wild ride, and when, sometimes, that ride goes on without you, long after you are nauseated from the curves and would simply rather get off.

How do you tell a story like that? Apparently, here, you start with the easy stuff. You start off slow, and hope that somehow you can circle things around just enough to create a pastiche, a collage, a portrait that resembles a whole, even if it can never be exactly complete.

“Getting old is a kick in the ass, honey,” my father told me when he was maybe seventy. By then, he had already outlived all his brothers spare one (long dead now), as well as his parents and most of his male friends—old customers from his bar or other bar owners, musicians, or occasional Mobsters whom alcoholism, drug use, high blood pressure or violent lifestyles got killed early. His fifties and sixties were full of wakes, and by the time he entered his seventies, he was already a Last Man Standing of sorts. When our longtime neighbor, reputed Mob boss Joe Lombardo, was let out of prison in the late 1980s, he drove by my father’s house honking his horn and waving, making a loud show of his “respect” for my father, one of the neighborhood patriarchs.

Every night my father dreams of his dead brothers. His dreams are full of barren, frozen grounds and solitary old men, dragged off by hostile crowds in the back of carts. His dreams are full of death imagery and ghosts. He never dreams of me or my mother. In his dream life, he has been standing alone for nearly two decades now.

“The show’s over,” he’s been telling us for years. And then, in the next breath, looking at my daughters, age 9, “I wish I could be around to see them get married.”

Where am I going with this? Where am I going?

I have given myself the week to figure it out. This is the thing about “youth,” even middle-aged-youth: I can still believe in the luxury of time. And so I’ll try again tomorrow.

My wife is pregnant.

Showing.

Growing.

Glowing.

Claire is fertilizing my seed, so to say, and supposedly on June 6th we’ll have a full grown zucchini ready for bucketing.*