Grandfather

   The only time I had ever seen my grandfather cry was also the first time I had ever seen an adult blatantly lose touch with reality. His first wife, my grandmother, Angelina, had died when I was five. She had been dead for maybe a week, and my grandfather came to our house and told my mother that he had come home from work and Angelina wasn’t there. Did she know where Angelina was?
   I remember feeling confused. It seemed like my grandfather was pretending or playing a game. Except the bad feeling in my stomach told me something else was going on.
   My mother told my grandfather to sit down and then she gently explained to him that Angelina had died, that there had been a funeral, did he remember the funeral? A look came over my grandfather’s face, one that I’ll never forget. He looked stricken. His face trembled and he began sobbing uncontrollably. He became a small child in my mother’s arms and that terrified me. How could this old man, my grandfather, turn into a small child? How could he forget that this wife had died when he had been at the funeral? I didn’t understand. My father was there too, but he had no idea what to say or do. He stood nearby and didn’t say a word. My mother held my grandfather and talked to him in a soft voice. My mother had the situation under control. She knew exactly what to do. Or at least gave that impression, which I suppose amounted to the same thing.
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Holden on the Rocks

   After the first bar, my father and I slide over to another bar, a non-island-themed one where a DJ is spinning party-pop music. At this point my father is slumped over on his barstool. When the bartender asks him if he’s alright, he says, Yea-yea I’m fine. They know me here. Don’t worry they know me. They take care of me.
   The bartender smiles and leaves us be.
   You’re wrecked Louie, I say as I try and help him to sit up straight.
   He takes my statement as an insinuation, an affront to his pride.
   Yea but that’s because I’ve been drinking straight Johnnie Walker Black doubles all night, and you’ve been drinking your mixed drinks. Whaddya expect?
   It’s not a competition, I say, though a part of me is happy that he’s the one slumped over on his barstool and not me.
   Anway I’m fine, I just need a second wind.
   Asserting his will, my father brusquely rose up from his barstool and nearly toppled forward before steadying himself.
   See? I’m ready for another round. You?
   Sure, I said. I had been down this road enough times to know that at this point there was no stopping. I had fucked up and would have to exhaust this particular episode of fuck-up until it was through.
   Let me order, I said.
   I got it, he insisted.
   My father shouted to the bartender, who took his time coming over.
   Yes what can I do for you?
   Johnnie Walker Black double and . . . you still drinking Stoli and soda?
   Yea.
   And a Stoli and soda on the rocks. Rocks, right?
   Yea.
   I can’t serve you sir, the bartender said.
   Can’t serve me? Are you kidding me?
   I’m sorry, let me get you a glass of water—
   Water, you know what fish do in that stuff, my father parroted W.C. Fields.
   The remark baffled the bartender.
   W.C. Fields, I explained.
   The bartender remained baffled. And repeated that he was sorry but he couldn’t serve my father.
   This is bullshit, my father barked. They know me here. Is Mikey working tonight? I wanna see Mikey.
   Mikey’s off tonight.
   Mikey’s off tonight, my father repeated with disdain. Just give me the drinks I ordered.
   I’m sorry, the bartender clipped and walked away.
   I’m gonna punch that bartender in his stupid fucking face, my father growled as his face reddened.
   Relax Louie, remember your evil twin—
   I’m relaxed I’m relaxed. If Mikey was here this would be no problem. Mikey knows me, they take care of me here. When my evil twins comes out they cut me off and somebody escorts me back to my room. They know how to handle my evil twin. But I’m still me right now. This fucking baldheaded faggot bartender—
   Just be quiet, I’ll get out drinks.
   I went to the other side of the bar and ordered two drinks from a different bartender. My father and me went to sit at a table in the far corner, out of view from the bar.
   See? Problem solved.
   Like a grateful child, my father eased into his drink, but he continued to seethe about the bald bartender.
   You know what I can’t stand about the bartender, he’s insincere.
   What do you mean he’s insincere?
   I mean he’s insincere, he’s not sincere. I can see it in his eyes. I look into people’s eyes and I can see that. A lot of people in this bar, very fucking insincere. That’s one thing I can’t stand. Phonies.
   All of a sudden I felt as if I were getting drunk with the Brooklyn version of a middle-aged Holden Caulfield.
   Am I sincere, I asked.
   You. Yea you’re sincere. You’re fucking crazy so you can’t not be sincere.
   My father’s reasoning, his morality guidelines were fascinating and I wanted to hear more.
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Relapse

   We head to a different bar, with an island theme. A bartender with a yellow lay collaring his neck says aloha and asks us what we’re drinking. My father says Johnnie Walker Black double. When my father asks me what I want to drink, I hear myself saying Stoli and soda. He doesn’t seemed surprised or fazed by my order, nor do I. It seems normal, like something I’ve been doing all along, or would inevitably start doing at some point.
   And just like that, after almost three years, I am drinking again.
   I had forgotten the false yet exquisite sense of ease that came with alcohol. All the noise in my head began to fade into a dim background. I was no longer walled in with the rabble, I was now on the fringes. There came a leveling that was akin to peace, even if it was a peace fretted with worry about losing that peace. It was a peace whose thorny bedfellow was anxiety.
   People have called it the glow, the click, the hum, and for every abnormal drinker, for every addict, you are willing to trade in everything for what amounts to a rigged facsimile of eternity. It is the sort of false eternity that swindles and seduces and you are happy to be swindled and seduced, to yield to the Salome of promises, to indulge the fatal basking which harbors a tunnel at the end of the light. And so, yes, Jung was right when he said, “Addicts are frustrated mystics,” because the innate desire, the heartcave hunger is to commune with God, to connect with something bigger and purer and truer and deeper than what you know or what you have experienced, to connect with Other and live deeply warm and worry-free inside a dream, to cover impossible distances in the shortest, quickest, easiest manner possible. Addicts have a hard time taking the slow road to heaven. And busying oneself with the impossible is one way of protesting reality.
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Venetian Noir

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Venetian Noir.
Because every writer
needs at least one identity crisis
and an alter ego to match.
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Ben Franklin 5.0

When a nation
becomes a paid advertisement
for itself
founding fathers
turn over in their graves
which they share
with the ghosts of slaves
whose chains they inherited
on karmic loan.

 

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Fathers and Sons

   I see and hear throughout dinner, how my father so desperately wants to impress my grandfather, wants to be applauded by him, recognized, seen. My father bulldozes in with his own stories. About having met and become friends with Joe Pesci (the relationship between Pesci and my father has grown and become considerably more intimate since his earlier telling of the story to me), about winning big at the track a few weeks ago, about his 8 and 0 record as an amateur boxer. My father vacillates between recent past, distant past, and present, in crafting a small legacy to which my grandfather can respond with praise or compliments. This doesn’t happen. My grandfather either says nothing or somehow maneuvers the topic back to himself. In some ways it is painful to listen to these exchanges. No, not painful exactly, squeamish. Listening to my father and grandfather talk without really communicating, without ever seeing or hearing each other, without ever meeting as human beings, made me feel squeamish. And sad. And I knew the same was true for my father and me. A sad chain of fathers and sons, not hearing each other, not seeing each other, relations bereft of anything even remotely resembling intimacy. I was my father’s father as much as I was my father’s son. All of it relative in a broad, orchestral sense.
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Recording Live

   I understand that I am not only with my father and grandfather and Marie as family, but also as a writer. I am sketching them. The mechanical hand in my mind that never stops is charting and sketching and composing them. I feel that I am with them, but also at great distance from them. I fictionalize my father as he speaks, as he gestures, what he says and does, what he doesn’t say and do. I am creating from him on the fly, a sort of metaphysical free sketch, drawing from his reality and unreality, and in that sense I am also creating myself. It is a relationship based on invention and rooted in artistic license. A part of me hates that I am doing this. Or maybe not hates but feels somewhat cunning and diabolical. And yet I can’t not do this, it happens naturally. I participate almost by default. It is an action that breeds a degenerate form of intimacy, which a part of me craves.
   My grandfather the human, and my grandfather the character, exist side by side. The recording angel on one’s shoulder is the same as the recording devil. It’s the recording itself, and not the nature of the one who’s doing the recording that is most important.
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Atlantic City

   We check into the Trop, where my grandfather and his wife are also staying. My father calls my grandfather and we make plans to meet for dinner at 5 at one of the restaurants. When he gets off the phone my father cracks—Your grandfather’s 87 and he’s got a cell phone before you do. When are you gonna get one?
   I’m not, I say, and feel obliged to once again explain my aversion of phones to him, with an even stronger disdain for a phone that goes where I do.
   One bed, I point out to my father.
   Yea, but it’s a a king-size, plenty of room.
   I can’t remember the last time I shared a bed with my father, or if I ever did.
   How do you like my new sunglasses, he models what looks like Terminator sunglasses with a silver tint.
   You look menacing, I say. And futuristic.
   They’re cool, huh?
   He removes the sunglasses and puts them in the front pocket of his shirt.
   I open the sliding glass door and step out onto the terrace. The heat comes over me like a woolen blanket. There is a view of the pool, which is crowded. A colored beach ball is being batted around. The blue of the pool shimmers, like a digitally enhanced postcard. Beyond the pool lies the beach, which is also crowded.
   My father joins me on the terrace, wearing his sunglasses.
   Beautiful huh, he says.
   I almost tell him that this sort of generic beauty, or glossy advertisement for beauty, did nothing for me, that standing on a terrace overlooking a sun-bleached pool was far less interesting or moving to me than sitting at a café on a rainy day and immersing myself in gentle melancholy, but instead say—Yea, it’s nice.
   My father turns to me—You need sunglasses? I have an extra pair.
   No, I have a pair. Do you remember I was wearing them in the car?
   Oh yea yea. Well if you wanna borrow mine, you can. They’re almost like these.
   My father indicates his sunglasses with a turned thumb.
   We can be like twins. Have our own gang. You want to borrow them?
   No I’m happy with my sunglasses.
   Alright but if you want to borrow them, let me know. I’m gonna go down and do some gambling. You wanna come?
   I’ll meet you down there in a little while. There’s some stuff I need to write.
  Oh yea, what are you gonna write about? Me?
    My father smiled.
   Partially, yea.
   When I’m dead and gone they’re gonna remember me through your stories. Except I’m always made out to the be the bad guy, right?
   My father smiled again. It was the smile of an innocent pretending to be a bad guy, or vice versa.
   You’re not the bad guy, I said. There are no bad guys. It’s not like that.
   Oh no? I read some of those stories from that book you wrote years ago, what was it called—
   Rabid Transit—
   Yea Rabid Transit. You threw me under the bus plenty. But that’s okay I probably deserve some of it. And you should write what you wanna write. I forgive you.
   My father playfully patted my cheek and smiled.
   Okay, wish me luck, I’m gonna hit the roulette tables.
   Good luck.
   But first.
   My father went into his duffelbag and produced a bottle of cologne. He dabbed generous amounts onto both side of his neck. Then he slapped his cologne-saturated folds of neck repeatedly, further activating the overpowering scent.
   It’s Polo, he said. It was a Christmas gift from Gina. I have to admit, she always gave the best gifts. If you want to use some, g’head. I’ll leave it out.
   He set the bottle on the nightstand next to the bed. Then he left.
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Unlearned

We are God’s longing
to know herself
on intimate, unfettered terms,
human to the radiant touch
and tenderest basking,
infinitely unlearned.

 

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Disability

Receiving disability was another gold ticket ambition of many of the men in my neighborhood. Years ago, my father had lucked into this fortune by hurting his back while working and had been able to parlay that into a ceaseless flow of disability checks. The men craved disability.
I heard one old-timer refer to this as Riding the Disability Rails. Being of out of work meant living life on their own terms. It meant a free pass from the realities of jobs that, at best, they tolerated, and at worst, despised. They no longer had to slave away at grunt jobs for money. They could go to O.T.B. or go to Aqueduct or Belmont and gamble, watch sports—at home, at a bar, take in a live game—loiter in front of bodegas or on streetcorners and breeze away the hours with small-talk. It seemed like a good life to me and I was happy for them when they were excused from reality.
These were blue-collar men who didn’t want to bust their asses day in and day out to make ends meet, but they did it because they had to, because that was life and sometimes you lucked into a disability claim or a lawsuit and reality went away for a while, but sometimes that didn’t happen and it remained a hope-fluttering flag on a distant ship that may or may not come.
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