and the sins of our fathers
[a lagniappe of the work in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
Peter Duggin was behind the bar. Doreen was on a break. It was a quiet Wednesday night.
“What’s the latest screw, Michael?”
“My income taxes.”
“I didn’t think you had much of that to deal with.”
“No. But I haven’t kept the proper records, it seems. I keep everything. Every receipt goes in a box. But so much of it’s electronic now. Hard to remember what something was that I paid two dollars and fifty-eight cents for three years ago. A bottle of Windex or packet of condoms.”
“No problem there. We know you didn’t buy any condoms.”
“Right. How about yourself?”
Showing a little respect, he let me quaff the top two inches of ale in my glass in silence before he answered.
“I’ve got to be going back to Wicklow. My father’s in a bad way.”
“Sorry to hear it.”
“He wants to die at home, but the house is falling down around him and it’s likely to fall down first.”
“How old is he now?”
“Your mother has passed?”
“Yeah. No. She’s passed along to Dublin to live with her sister. She wants him to sell the house to a developer and use the money to come to America and so she can give Doreen a little hell. Better I go back to Wicklow and try to reason with my father. It may be my last chance. I’ve never been able to reason with him before.”
“A man’s home is his castle.”
“I grew up there. It’s no castle. The sills were rotted so bad that when I was a boy I had a fight with my brother and—mind, the two of us didn’t weight more than a hundred pounds together—we took a section of a wall outside with us.”
“Why does he want to keep it? No place else to go?”
“That would be the elder care facility for him. He would rather go up to the top of Mullach Cliabhain and drown himself in the water there.”
“What do you think you’ll do, then, bring him here?”
“Nah. I’ll hire a fellow to fix the roof and work on the sills. Dad won’t budge until he’s cold. He told my mother he’d move if she would go up and swim naked with him in the Glenmacnass like they did sixty years ago. But she told him no good came of that then and she wouldn’t do it again.”
“Sounds like something worth doing again—at least once before you die.”
“I tried it myself once. The water is cold. You’d need another body to get you warm again.”
“And she won’t live in the house?”
“She hasn’t in ten or twelve years.”
“Because of the roof?”
“No. Because she didn’t want him poking her in the night anymore.”
That deserved another inch of ale and a little understanding.
“Your house is pretty small. Where would your mother live if she came here?”
“Her knees are no good. I’d have to get rid of all that crap in the garage and finish that out so she could be on the ground.”
“Sounds like a project.”
“A lighter one if you’d come and take all of the books away that you talked us into buying through the years.”
“I don’t have the money for it Peter. I’d have to pay you later.”
“That’ll be fine. If you can.”
“I’ll send Jack over to box it up. When’s best?”
“I tell him. He’s laying low right now.”
“He’s afraid the feds will tag him.”
“Is he illegal?”
“No. Just off the grid, a little.””
“I know that feeling. I lived that way for ten years before Doreen finally married me.”
“I think you told me you were doing roofing back then. So why don’t you do your dad’s?”
“He’d just tell me I did it wrong.”
What passed for intellectual perception in our time was a self-coruscating (drawing attention as opposed to illuminating) whine about false pretenses and the lies of our fathers. They were to blame for the corruption of our virtues. We hadn’t made this world! None of it was our fault. Why opt for religion when there are opiates to be had? What need was there for a civilization so flawed when nirvana was so near? But it must have occurred to a few to ask, what made us any better than them, anyway?
Though it was purportedly inspired by the cold war thriller Red Alert, the movie Dr. Strangelove did not require a book. The dark absurdity of the farce it portrayed was manifest in the age, like a liquor distilled from the air we breathed, and then sold to us in Nik-L-Nips—those miniature wax bottles that we bought at the five & dime and drank, as if it was an elixir and not the pure crap that it was, before we chewed the wax of the container itself for every last bit of the brightly colored sugar water—good training for future druggies and alcoholics.
The ‘Big Phony,’ as my uncle Ted called it, was all around us. It was an age of cheap irony without the tempering of wit. The big finned, chrome grilled, eight-cylindered, plastic seat-covered, dream-boat cars were rusting out right before our eyes. What more proof for the corruption of our fathers did we need?
I remember the candy cigarettes sold in packs that looked a lot like the real thing, including an illustrated camel device for verisimilitude. You could roll them up on the sleeve of your T-shirt the way the big kids did it and pretend you were a smoker too. And I think I remember that Mr. Getz, the owner of the dime store where we got them, later died of lung cancer—or maybe I made that up in a story later on. There is just too much irony in that to be true.
The ‘Big Phony’ was unsubtly displayed all around and about our young lives in the late 1950s and early 1960s, not just in the shine of the cheesy plastic goods, the chrome-plated six-shooter cap-guns teasing us with glare, and the gleam and taunting of the faux rocketry of tail-fins on automobiles that could go a hundred and twenty miles an hour (according to the wide display of the speedometers that filled your eyes with expectation as the needle arced) on roads with speed limits of half as much or less. It was an age vexing us with the three minute aural gratification of the 45 rpm record, which was about all the juice the average teenager had in him.
TV was our national past time by then. Baseball we played to please our fathers. We watched westerns about men killing other men, cop shows and mysteries about men and women killing other men and women, sit-coms about men and women being total asses, and Dick Clarke’s American Band Stand, which was ostensibly about music.
But our nostalgia is mostly a selective memory of the false.
It is no wonder perhaps that the angst we felt was finally played out against a war in the distant rice paddies of South East Asia. Vietnam was simply a spasmodic release of tension by then—a sort of juvenile blood-rite of masturbatory violence that just happened to kill a few hundred thousand human beings and ruined an ancient country of little consequence to us. Of course, the dissipation ruined us as well, as it always will.
Later we were asked—no, we were begged repeatedly by the journalistas to ask—who had won the war? Our movies and our literature and our music questioned our motives. Meanwhile, the disintegration of our families in dalliance and divorce questioned our very human purpose. Ignoring history, teachers gleefully explained the darker subtext of fairytales in our classrooms, as if this enlightenment might somehow inspire us. Bigotry suddenly became our original sin, as if this had never been seen or heard of before, or elsewhere. Our scarlet letter ‘A’ was now ‘white.’ The homilies of our priests turned from the practical to the abstract in order to avoid confrontation with the more obvious hypocrisies. And in this head-up-the-ass darkness, we blamed not ourselves for the stink, but our forefathers. Denying their own humanity, we ignored the history that showed how they had confronted the same demons that we must face. As if they had not overcome the very weaknesses in making the nation to which we so readily succumb. Blame them for our failings. Toke and party on.
Our children have learned our lessons well. American exceptionalism is only a sham. No need for military service. No need for borders. No need for law. Order is a false choice. Good and bad are relative, but no relation to them. The Morse Code is forgotten but virtue signaling has been raised to a near art form. And history? History is a lie—just don’t say that in front of Grandpa!
Insert finger in throat here, and gag. An involuntary reflex is appropriate. Having given up our right to choose a future for ourselves, we now have one chosen for us. Don’t slip on the vomit. Strap the C-4 explosive to our bodies and run from our lives. We are not worthy of more or better. Only worse. In many ways, what my own generation opted for instead of the picket fence and the trimmed lawn is a Pieter Bruegel landscape, the Triumph of Death. What other excuse can be made for choosing to play with pot and pretend it does not impair our judgment; to play with sex and then deny the consequence of disease or abortion; or to play with ideologies that deny right and wrong. Is it all just a nasty game?
Pieter Bruegel would blanch!”
Peter Duggin was working the other end of the bar, but Doreen came back just before I left.
“What is all this shit then? They’ve nothing better to do?”
She has a way with words. It’s why Peter married her, I think.
“No. I don’t think so. I’m just the existential threat. The books are the problem. The authorities have to find a way to get rid of the books. The educational system doesn’t teach the citizen to read anyway. Just scan. And not to think. Certainly not to reason. But still, that’s only a start. As things break down, some of the abused might see that the answers are right there in the old volumes. They’ll have to rid themselves of the troublesome books. I’m just the superfluous man now.”
Peter caught the odd word from afar.
“That’s your Mr. Nock, isn’t it. You got me to read that twenty years ago.”
“Take it out of the garage and read it again. It’ll help you with your father and your mother too.”
“But it’s just a little book.”
“You have a mother and father to look after. It’s just a little problem.”