but if the tree is on a hill, an apple can roll pretty far
[another bite of the novel in progress, A Republic of Books, more of which may be found elsewhere on this ethereal site]
Of all the many failures for which I hold myself responsible, my children are the most discouraging. They have each taken up one or more of my many faults and grafted them onto their own stem. My complaint might sound similar to that of any parent who has wished the best for his family and then, his best advice discarded, watched helplessly as they sallied forth to their own destinies, but I think my unhappiness is at least somewhat deepened by the degree of separation, even when they are in the same room. We love each other, well enough. I have never had any inkling that they do not love me, or their mother, and my own affections have never flagged. But it is a fact that I cannot easily speak with them about any topic closer to our personal lives than the sports results, the places we have gone or would go if we could, eating establishments we have discovered or recollections of all the more mundane things we have done. The present indicative in our own lives is pretty much verboten. Politics is off limits. The news—beyond the reportage of an ongoing catastrophe—is taboo. Philosophy is prohibited. Personal problems (other than medical) are wholly proscribed. And talk of my own work, because it so often transgresses one or more of the above categories, is banned in Boston.
Naturally I transgress in all the above categories fairly regularly and will again if I have the chance. Rationalize as I might that they are adults, free spirits, individuals, and as entitled to their own mistakes as they are to their own success, I cannot give up the idea that they are my children and thus I am responsible at least for their faults—especially those they have not yet admitted to.
In my own defense I might remind myself that children do not listen. Per se. They absorb, by example—which becomes its own sort of reproach in time. This may be genetic; something in us all that lingers from our primordial past, when cave painting served the need and before language had developed sufficiently to explain the need to wash your hands, make your bed, pick up your clothes, look both ways when you cross the street, and never bet on a sure thing.
It is likely my own example which has driven my children away as much as their own ambitions. This must have always been so. It is difficult to illustrate those qualities you would want most for your children to understand—honesty, integrity, kindness. Before Shakespeare and the OED, this must have been an unspeakable chore. Practices such as honesty and forthrightness do not translate easily to the blood smears on the walls of the cave. But the blood is shed nonetheless at their feet, in the sort of Pollackian splatters that are difficult to read. Reading the entrails of the toad must be easier. My own attempts have more often been interpreted as criticism than truthfulness. And if you lie to save hurt feelings, you have done the exact opposite of what you intended. You have added to the some total of lies that will guide them in directions you cannot fathom.
Elly calls me every week, usually on Sundays. Ben is pretty good about calling but more erratic. Georgy is likely to call at anytime. She thinks this is her role as the eldest and the go-to go-between for her mother and myself. According to another parent that I know, I should think this level of communication is extraordinary, in that he only hears from his kids when money is short. I told my friend that my kids typically have more money than I do. He suggested that I call them more often.
Charlie Flaherty from the Journal Transcript calls me to check up on how things are going and I tell him they are going, so he is in the door bright and early. This was about five minutes after I printed out the first announcement concerning the closing of the shop.
Charlie looks at the handout and starts shaking his head before he’s halfway through the page.
“It’s hard to get excited about another bookstore closing. It’s a standing head. You wanna give me something else I can use.”
Charlie has his priorities.
“Why do you care?”
Charlie looks both ways as if he is telling me a secret.
“I don’t. It’s my boss does. He thinks there’s a fire because he sees Deirdre’s smoke. I told him it was just some old dick playing with matches and mirrors. He won’t believe me. Fact is, he’s tried to hire her away from the Post more than once, which is good for me because I’d be part time or out of a job if she ever took him up on it. The lights at the newspapers are going out as fast as the bookshops. You know? I mean, we’re both making buggy whips, aren’t we? Anyway, so I told him, nobody gives a damn about books anymore. That’s yesterday’s news. The old ladies in Cambridge and Brookline and Newton who read hardcover books don’t buy the Transcript anyway. And the rest of us were all raised on television. My kids were raised on computers. Their kids will have it all in the palm of their hands. Full circle! You know? We’re all back playing with ourselves within a generation, but all the fun’s gone out of even that now. People jerk each other off in public. That’s all the human race is good for—diddling with themselves or someone else. That and maybe an occasional plate of fried clams. But you can’t even get a good plate of fried clams in town these days.”
“You probably got that about right.”
The agreement puts him in a contemplative frame of mind. He walks around the counter looking at the shelves and then back.
“So what’s with your kids. Why aren’t they here trying to help the old man?”
“They work for a living.”
“But this is the old man we’re talking about, going down the toilet without a boat.”
“I don’t understand that metaphor.”
“It’s at the other end of being up the creek without a paddle.”
I wrote that down on some mental 3 x 5 and gave him an answer.
“They’ll be around.”
“Can I talk to them? Get a little human interest schtick going. The old ladies in Charlestown and Dorchester love the human interest stuff. They don’t read much but they still watch Oprah. They like the stuff about kids. It reminds them that they haven’t seen their own kids lately.”
Now, I need the publicity to sell some books. I have to face facts. If I’m going to clean this place out by October, I need Charlie Flaherty. Deirdre won’t be able to carry that load by herself.
“Eleanor will be here this week. She’s taking some time off.”
“She the oldest?”
“No. In the middle.”
“What does she do when she not trying to save daddy from the alligators?”
“She’s an actress—when she can get a part. She writes plays and works as a model for the ad agencies when she can’t.”
“I’ll bring a photographer along if she’s that good looking. What day will she be here?”
“Saturday. But that’ll be too busy. Come by Monday, and I’ll tell her what to say to you.”
“Thanks a lot.”
Marc Bloch, a Marxist historian, once wrote, in the particular case of farmers and agricultural workers, “It is chiefly the grandparents who more often than not see to the upbringing of children on peasant families. Their work in the fields . . . means that neither the father nor mother has enough leisure to supervise them properly. That is one of the causes, I believe, for the remarkable persistence of tradition in such communities.”
Mr. Bloch appears not to have accounted for the extended family of grandparents, aunts and uncles, and maiden sisters that ruled most clans. But because tradition was always the enemy of the state, the Marxists, and their theorists, had to deal with that early on, which meant that they had to get the children out of the clutches of the family. The ‘public school’ was the answer. And in recent times, with taxes being evermore onerous and thus the need for both parents to work in order to make ends meet obligatory, by design, parents are engaged with more important things than mere life and death and caring—matters of ‘consequence’ as the businessman said to the Little Prince—and with the parents themselves thereby estranged, families are dispersed by divorce, while the grandparents are relegated to nursing homes to avoid any bother, and aunts and uncles are scattered from Cleveland to Ponca City, thus the children are indeed raised by the public schools, and television, which is much the same thing. Any chance to carry on the traditions of our past are lost to a general absence of caring.
But our time is really made up of what we want in life. A time machine is unnecessary. We are all creatures of memory, not history. The future is not about us. The past is.
Margaret began working full time again when Benjamin, the youngest, reached first grade. But they were all still children, so I brought them to the bookshop when I picked them up after school. To that extent, they grew up here. And I suppose that familiarity with the place might have bred some level of contempt. But for the most part, my children were raised in the same bourgeoisie culture that Margret and I both knew as kids. And this was done on purpose too. We both have at least that much in common—that is, an abiding belief in the older middle class values. Dinner at seven. No television on school nights. That sort of thing. They all wash their hands before they eat.
But being in the shop so much exposed them to human kind and not so kind, at its worst or best, but often at its most and in the altogether, the mean and niggardly as well as the generous and great, the lying but yet sincere, the thoughtful and the hasty, the honestly deceitful, the sweet and the sour, and there is no predicting what truth they found in that gallimaufry, that human stew. Where I find this humorous for the most part, it may have hurt the children in subtle ways I did not comprehend. Cynicism comes easily to them. Trust is a hard sell. And mostly this was the fault of where we were on the map, I think. In a small town where people depend on each other more, there is less of the worst displayed. In villages people are liable for how they are known. In the city, reputation is fungible. But it is true, our average customer was above average. That is, at least they had more money if not the intelligence to use it wisely, and those with more intelligence, were often either born to wealth and thus incompetent to appreciate the value of what they had, or a product of the ‘money’ school of value that teaches cretinism as a means to all ends. There were exceptions. Many. But the kids could not help being scarred by the nastiness in all that. ‘Rude’ was the word I used most often. ‘Where did that come from,’ they would say after a particularly obnoxious person had made an exit while loudly bellowing something unreportable. And I couldn’t tell them.
Part of my own loss of faith in my fellow citizens is caught up in the way they have treated their own children: carelessly. The pains our grandparents suffered to make sure we were well educated and capable of taking care of ourselves has been sabotaged by an intentional Progressive social suicide. I say, intentional because, as I have noted before, Marxist authors identified the need for such disintegration many years ago, as a means of undermining the middle class values that made things work. Roughly speaking—and it is indeed very rough on them—a larger number of young males are out of work while being incapable of performing basic tasks—often because of drug abuse. Period. Is this something you can argue with? Facts are mean that way. Opioid use is rampant. Do you not know this? Beyond the ‘safe’ neighborhoods like Beacon Hill and Back Bay, where drug use is sanctioned by prescription, violence is common, death not uncommon, and the hurt deeper than the bruises tell. With the exponential increase in laws comes an equal increase in crime. Which crime is important? So we separate them by color. Blue collar and white collar. True felony, like villainy, has lost its distinction. I’m thinking that Deirdre has taught me this.
Then Deirdre comes into my oasis of reason and asks me, “Is Stella here?”
“No. Not tonight. What’s wrong?”
“Just frustrated. A young black girl was raped in Roxbury and it didn’t make the news.” She doesn’t shake her head. As if the fact is beyond shaking off. “The same thing happened to a white girl on Commonwealth Avenue last week, and the street was clogged with emergency vehicles and Channel 5 and 4 and 7 vans barricaded the sidewalks. Most of the victims of inner-city violence are black. But you know that. And most of the perpetrators are black. You know that too. And it doesn’t end. It gets worse all the time. White politics. Black crime. It’s all black and white and everyone is afraid to point that out.”
“It’s an upside down world. Sorry.”
Deirdre ignores my petty sympathy.
“I just came from interviewing the girl’s mother. She’s in drug rehab and works at Goodwill. And she’s three month’s pregnant. She didn’t even know about her daughter. She hadn’t been home in several days. Hell, half the kids born in America are born out of wedlock. What’s the big deal? So that young black girl who never knew her father and thinks all men are predators has little hope of seeking justice and looks to other means. Maybe she’ll shoot the sonofabitch when she sees him next. Or knife him, right where he’s sauntering in the street. In broad daylight. But then she’s a murderer. And the gang that the rapist ran with will want to kill her in revenge. So the cops will arrest her for the murder and she’ll go to a jail where of course the gang has friends anyway. What has happened? Justice? And the white girl. She’s better off, I guess. Her mother sent her to some sort of rehabilitation clinic in the Catskills. But she gets to live with the memory. And her rapist is still out there, ruining other lives. And she knows this too. What has happened? More justice?”
Deirdre says this to me while I’m trying to concentrate on how to schedule the discounts so that there will be a chance to sell off as much stock as possible. She’s standing there at the counter, facing me—the upper half of a woman enraged.
“Did you write that up for the Post?”
“Yes. But they can’t use it. I put it in the round file.”
“I’m sorry . . . But take it out. I’ll post it. It seems to me it’s more important than another fucking bookshop closing.”
She stands there staring me long enough to make me uncomfortable.
Finally she says. “No. That’s not your story.”
“Post it all on your own website, then.”
She lets that breath go before she speaks.
“You know I don’t have a website.”
“That’s what I’m saying! Go to Blogger dot com or WordPress dot com or one of the others and get it into print—even if its just digital ink. Even if it’s just me that reads it.”
She stood there quietly again. I tried to concentrate on what I was working on just moments before.
“You’ve really gotten into this thing, haven’t you?”
“Its either that or die. I’m not ready to die yet. And I guess I write to live as much as I live to write.”
Deirdre disappeared when I was trying to help a customer.