It was All Saints’ Day. A perfect time to visit our local legend, Thomas Jefferson.

People talk about Jefferson in Charlottesville, anchored by the university he founded, as if he were alive. “Jefferson would want us to build the road around the park, not through it.” “Jefferson would not let high-rises obscure the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.” Instead of “What would Jesus do?” people ask, “What would Jefferson do?”

You just published a book called Playing with Dynamite: A Memoir. Why did you decide to write a book about yourself? Did you do jail time or recover from addiction or walk on the moon or something?

First of all, I never intended to write memoir. Like many writers, I started with autobiographical fiction. I wrote a novel about a teenage girl growing up in Detroit who embarks on a quest to find out who her father was and how he died. It’s remarkable how many memoirists say they started by writing their story as fiction, but it didn’t work, so they finally had to tell the whole truth. That’s what happened with me.

Paula Priamos’s The Shyster’s Daughter is a beautifully written, charged, addictive “detective-noir” memoir—utterly absorbing and packed with sharp details, evoking a Southern California rarely seen on the page, replete with strip bars and casinos.

Priamos investigates the mysterious death of her high-profile defense lawyer father, describing the shady deals and characters that led to his disbarment.  She also gives a vivid portrait of her Greek American family caught up in the scandal-obsessed, drug-addicted culture of California in the closing decades of the twentieth century.

The best advice you’ll get about turning thirty will come from that friend of a friend who drinks until he gets far too loud and a little too touchy (in both senses of the word). But when he sidles beside you at your friend’s birthday party, you will be just tipsy enough to smile when he calls you “youngin’.” His voice is as bright as a struck bell, yet his face is prematurely leathered. This will endear him to you, and when he says he reckons you’re the next stop on this birthday train, you’ll confide that you’re nervous about hitting what the magazines call “the big 3-0,” that you’ve been tallying up all you’ve done and haven’t done, measuring yourself against all you thought you’d have accomplished by now.

One of the most vivid of the moments still lodged in my ever-receding past is the moment you joined us here on earth. I replay it in my mind’s eye like a snippet of movie reel through the old Bell & Howell projector. A little bit grainy and blurry at spots, there’s some frayed sprocket holes that are a bit jittery, but it is intact, it is cinema verite, even these many years later.


Violence was always the way we remembered each other.

My father was the sting from a belt-buckle, a sting that feels thick and sharp at the same time. He went with me through my day. In school, I used to press my thumbs along the bruises underneath my clothes. I couldn’t forget the pain, so I made it my vicious little thrill.

Evenings after the evenings he’d come home to find that I’d spilled the milk or laughed too loud or looked at my mother the wrong way he was always sorry. He brought me paper to draw on and the pencils “that skinny kid at the art store said were the best kind”. He brought me books from the adult section of the library because I was too smart for “kiddie shit.” He brought me ice cream and he let me eat it in bed.

Though I was already the biggest girl in my class, I felt small beside the leonine heft of his body. I was always as safe as his regard for me at any given moment. I know this now. As a child, all I felt was the strength in his hands. His blunt fingers settled hesitantly along the back of my head, unsure how to move through a child’s hair.

Sometimes he read to me, his cigarette-leathered voice leading the boy Arthur to the sword in the stone. Sometimes, he insisted I read to him. The musk of his tobacco, dry cherry and damp wood, filled the bedroom. He murmured his approval when I read the hard words correctly.

When my ice cream melted on the sheets, I’d brace myself for the sharp exhale that preceded a slap—he had to supply the very air his hand would cut through—but he just sighed.

Still, annoyance flickered through his affection like a serpent through the grass. His hand fell to the small of my back; he pressed his knuckles through my nightgown. Not hard, but hard enough.


Throughout my teen years, my father and I merely co-existed. Our mail came to the same address, and we occasionally shared family dinners of spongy meat and overcooked broccoli. My mother would titter anxiously about something one of her girlfriends said about some starlet that neither I nor my father was aware of. Her girlfriends: as if they weren’t on the older-end of middle-aged.

My girlish chub became the heft of breasts; he could no longer rip my shirt off to spank me with a belt. Spank: my mother’s word. Spank: a mild corrective; nothing that would leave scars. But the scars rutting my skin were not mild—lunar-white from the everlasting loss of blood. He’d beaten parts of me until they’d died.

We regarded each other like enemy combatants who, after the war, found themselves refugees in a neutral territory. Every Saturday night, he sat at the kitchen table with his true crime novel and a cup of coffee, waiting for me to return. I would enter, stoically attempting to hide my drunkenness. Wordlessly, he slid his coffee toward me, and, with a nod, I accepted. We both drank our coffee black.

Still, his offer to teach me to drive was a vise-tight pressure in my chest. His attempt to help me study fifth-grade American history ended with him backhanding me; open-palmed, but still hard enough for my face to sting every time I heard “electoral college.” Yet I felt great tenderness when I thought of those flashcards written in his cramped, tilting scrawl.

So we took his green Taurus to practice left turns on side streets, to practice merging on 83 North. His long arm slung out the window, hand waving along with the breeze. He made me pull between cars that hadn’t parked within the lines: “Two-thirds of the time, it’s not how you drive, it’s those other assholes.” I winced as the left side-view mirror chipped the VW Beetle beside me. “You’re doing fine,” he said. “What matters is getting out without scratching your car.”

My father guided me in and out of parallel parks with an affable calm that startled me; my body knew his moods like a chameleon knew its colors; randomly, I’d feel a hot shiver of annoyance, or I’d bristle with an inchoate listlessness—and, looking up, find that he’d entered my room.

But he didn’t even push me when I waited a little too long to make my left turns. Just fiddled with the radio, chatting about concerts he’d gone to. “When I wasn’t that much older than you are, I saw Bob Dylan in the Village, twice. Me with a bunch of trust-fund bohemians. Bet you don’t believe that.”

I wanted to. My father riding the subway into the city, his body stiff from laying brick. He’d feel out of place among the city kids; they wore his clothes—work flannels and dusted-up jeans—with irony.

Suddenly, a car horn trilled behind us. In the rearview, I watched a green Saab zip within an inch of my bumper. The driver’s face was puckered with disgust. The Saab passed me inside the turn lane, swinging into the strip mall parking lot.

“Follow him,” my father growled. Then, under his breath: “Your name is no, asshole.”

I couldn’t breathe. I could only obey him.

“I don’t know where he went.”

I hardly heard my own voice, so I was surprised that he replied.

“With that car, he isn’t at the dollar store.”

The Saab was parked in front of the Starbucks, which was separate from the strip. My father directed me to block in the Saab. A lean man in a salmon-colored shirt approached, distractedly sipping from a large cup. A venti. When he saw the Taurus, his eyes flashed at me. My father spoke first:

“You in a big rush, faggot? You’ve got to get your mocha-frappa-extra-soy latte in such a goddamn hurry that you’re going bully a young girl who’s just learning to drive.”

“Are you serious?”

The man wanted to sound insouciantly amused, but his face drained as he glanced sidelong at my father’s hand. My father slung his arm out the car window, his thick ring thudding against metal. With his blunt, powerfully muscled chest and shoulders, he recalled one of those burrowing mammals I’d studied in science, a wolverine forcing his way through frozen soil.

“As a heart attack. It says ‘rookie driver’ on the bumper. You didn’t have to be a dick about it, and now you’re going to apologize.”

The man stammered something about calling the police, but I knew intuitively that he wouldn’t.

My father unbuckled his seatbelt, and the man mumbled “sorry.” He pushed his door open, and the man said “sorry” louder.

I could’ve driven off once my father closed his door. But I kept staring at the man until his eyes offered another apology, this one even more defeated than the one my father forced out of him. With a satisfied sigh, my father eased in his seat.

“You held your own,” he said, reaching for a Marlboro.

He tilted his head toward me like he might offer me a cigarette, but then turned to face the window. Still, his voice invited me into the secret space his power lived, coiled and ticking.



I’ve given up dating.

Well, kind of. I’ve stopped dating. Not forever…I think. Just for a short while, just until the most recent gaping wound heals over and I can finally figure out what I want.

It’s a question of long term vs. short term. Should be easy, right?

Wrong.

So far, it’s the hardest thing I’ve done in recent years, this introspective cave I’ve entered. It’s a self-imposed retreat from the dating world for the next six months. I’m supposed to sit down and occasionally drink a beer (or something harder) and figure out what I want from the next relationship I find myself in (or not in, as the case might be).

I suppose that if it was easy, everyone would do it. We’d all take a six month break between relationships and re-evaluate the states of our lives. If it was really and truly easy, the people who have it all figured out already would be there, waiting for us, ready to dole out great pieces of advice and cupcakes so it would all seem a little less painful.

There have been no great pieces of advice as of yet.

Nor have there been cupcakes.

(I’m far more upset about the cupcakes, which may speak to the level of committment I’ve made to this self-improvement project.)

The lack of cupcakes and advice aside, it’s the questions that I’m struggling with right now, the questions about what I want for my future self.

Do I want marriage and children and a white picket fence?

Do I want the comfort and stability of a marriage without the hassle of a wedding?

Do I want to spend the rest of my life alone, drifting from one man to the next in pursuit of some happiness I’m not even sure I understand?

These are the questions I hope to answer in six months, these and others. The goal is to be a little more put together by Thanksgiving, to have a better understanding of my place in this world and what it means to be a single woman approaching 30.

(The first person to make an old maid crack, gets it.)

I have a feeling there’s a storm of epic proportions waiting for me down the road, sitting idle in the weeks approaching my birthday in August. Hurricane Deal-With-Your-Shit-And-Move-On could be a category 4 if 29 doesn’t go as well as I hope.

My father has this way of saying something without actually saying it. It’s about facial expressions, the way his glasses will slip down his nose. When either my brother or I would complain about the difficulty of a situation, the expression on his face would change.

His jaw would set and his chin would jut out.

His glasses – big glasses that cover his eyes and the top halves of his cheeks – would slip down ever so slightly.

And his mouth would quirk in this strange half smile that was too soft to be a smirk but too sarcastic to be loving.

It was an expression that said volumes. It said that if it was supposed to be easy, it wouldn’t be hard (there was always an implied ‘dumbass’ in that expression, typically reserved for our particularly whiny moments).

Sometimes you have to work hard for the easy answers. I’ll guess we’ll just have to see if he’s right.

Dad? Are you high?

By Zoe Brock

Essay

Not so long ago, on a rare San Francisco day of surprising warmth and humidity, I was sitting at my nice orderly desk when an email appeared in my nice orderly inbox.

“Ping,” said my Google Notifier.

“Ooo,” said I. “Somebody loves me.”

The Google Notifier said nothing in response and I took it’s silence to mean that it was brimming over, like a fat and happy porcelain Buddha, with benign agreement.

I was right.

Somebody did love me…… and I am grateful.


That morning an almost sickly-sweet jasmine-scented breeze was blowing through my curtains and threatening to destroy my newest art-work. Like randy teenagers at an unchaperoned party the fine threads of my mobile danced together, much too closely, libidinous and teasing, flirting, tantalizing, making promises and whispering secrets. The  ancient photographic paper, like the very fabric of my small, cloistered reality, was in danger of ripping…

… so I got up and, with one last, grateful inhale of flowery air, I prudishly closed the window on breezy San Francisco, locking her outside to play with her other friends.

I wasn’t worried, she has many.

Once those windows were closed all sound abated. I was in a vacuum and all became still, muted…. and yet somehow quite dense. On this day my very white room felt more like a sanctuary than a sanatorium, a lucky occurrence that has as much to do with my mood as it does with the weather. On this day I was Home, and I was Happy. It was the perfect environment to be in when I opened my email and discovered these pictures-

The man-child in these photos is my father.

I had never seen these images, nor any of the ones that follow.

I was stunned.

There he is, my daddy, in all his youthful splendor, not quite a man and yet no longer a child.

Playing, preening, posing, entertaining, acting the fool – a rock-star artist lunatic.

He looks high.

If he isn’t high then he sure knows how to pretend to be.

My father died in 2001. I never knew this version of him. I knew the later incarnations, the older, more jaded, disappointed and infinitely wiser and wearier versions of this creature I now found before me. The person in these photos is an innocent- a naughty, cheeky, confident kid- full of swagger and sex and adventure.

I was, and am, completely taken aback by these photographs. They do not make me sad but they do intrigue and confuse me. The guy in these photos is My Father, but his obvious youth and the striking physical resemblances we share trick me into thinking he is, despite my being an only child, my brother. I recognize him as much as I see a total stranger. These pictures overwhelm me. I cannot ask him where they were taken, or even who by. I cannot ask him what he was thinking, hoping, dreaming… or what happened in the years between this recorded day and the year of my birth to temper his innocence. I cannot ask him anything.

He’s dead.

I stare at these pictures, here in my clean, white space and feel certain of only one thing….

The guy in these pictures is one of Us. That guy is someone I’d like to hang out with. Get drunk with. Talk shit with. He looks like any one of a bunch of San Francisco neo-hipsters that loiter in the cafe’s along Valencia, or lean against warehouse walls with paint on their fingers and smirks on their lips.

He was a special creature. And, much to my amazement, a better, more daring artist than he ever let on. Maybe he forgot? Maybe he lost that part of himself? Maybe he just got bored and moved on… but I know for certain that, despite his dabblings in ceramics and the totem poles he was carving when he died, he never painted anything in my lifetime like the canvas he is working on here.

It’s fascinating to me that I can find a new facet to my dad so many years after his passing.

I’m so proud and impressed. I feel bigger and greater and more powerful knowing I have his blood and passion inside me. He could play, inspire, create, amuse, reprimand, take no shit and always encourage.

In his honor I will continue to play, preen, pose, entertain, be a fool and a goddess and a rock-star-artist-lunatic… although something ever so unsubtle is telling me that I probably have no choice.

The proof is in the pictures.

This one’s for you, dad. x


Comment by Bruce King 2009-02-17 03:51:41


Zoe,
It is with considerable delight and interest that I “accidentally” discovered your wonderful chronicles by searching Google for snippets relating to my old mate, Warwick. Your Dad was one of my closest friends in Christchurch back in the early to mid 1960’s. We partied wildly and sang together heaps; in fact we often performed together at some of the great folk venues around town in those halcyon days—before Brock & Eggs, before Lyttelton, before the wheel . . . if you know what I mean. Could I have met you in your early childhood at that wonderful house overlooking the Port of Lyttelton? Recently I (amazingly, through a common interest in woodworking) met the German woodcrafter who currently lives there. Just the other day, I unearthed a poster I had done for the occasion of the Wellington Folk Festival several years ago (I am a retired graphic designer—a career choice in no small way inspired by your Dad). This visual chronology, in the form of a photomontage, has many pictures of Warwick, along with his old friend Bruce King, alias yours truly. If you would like a copy I’ll email a pdf to you, just say the word. The last time (literally) I saw your Dad was in Newtown, about 10 or 12 years ago. He and Cath lived a couple of streets away from Owen Street where my Mum used to live. I have never before seen the photos you have shared on this site—marvellous. I do miss his indomitable spirit and wicked laughter! Go well, Zoe, Bruce
PS: My wife Jessica and I live in Golden Bay where we are currently applying the final touches to our new adobe hacienda. What a joy!