All the houses we lived in were dark, because when mother was a girl someone had told her that light and moving air carried heat and that darkness was cooler. She kept the windows shaded and shuttered. She said she did this to save on the electric bill. For our sake. I remember only one exception of sun. The third floor, the attic of our home in Milton, Massachusetts, was bright. White heat streamed in to the bare low-ceilinged space. The prior owners of the house had left behind a couch, largely flowered and blandly beige. We sat relaxed on this couch, its flowers and unfinished wood, pine probably. A Crate-and-Barrel-type affair. A furnishing ephemeral as flowers. Something that could not be passed down; and, therefore, belonged in the trash.
We sat in the sunlit attic, drank Tang, and watched the two hours of tv allotted us on a black and white set. My father, an instrument of defense intelligence – this I learned decades later, just months before his death – had insisted correctly that technology for color had not been perfected, and so, need not be watched.
While Father awaited HDTV, we watched the psychedelia of Batman in shades of gray. Because that’s what my older brother and his friends, then in middle school, wanted to watch. Sister stayed after high school and led some Kappa meeting, little brother, a toddler, napped. I was six. Anyway, there was nothing else on. At least that’s what I thought. Or was told. I never knew That Girl was on. Sometimes the boys flipped to The Flying Nun, as if for me, but now, I wonder if it was because they wanted Sally Fields. (Years later, I was surprised to discover her appeal to men friends – one of whom decided to get circumcised at forty and had the unfortunate fate of turning on, or to put it more precisely, being turned on by the Nun, almost directly after incision.) In any case, for me, The Flying Nun was entirely too weird. So we stuck to Batman. And I watched. Even though the not knowing -- of Gotham for Batman and Robin’s true identities, how the caped crusaders would be captured, how they would escape – provoked my anxiety. I kept thinking, as I watched them, that they were just a breath away from being unmasked. And with each cliffhanger, I thought, this time, this time they’re dead.
I didn’t like Batgirl. She was derivative. But boy did I love Catwoman. It was only with her that Batman ceased being a buffoon. He left his logic, became tender. I sensed then that it took black leather to make a man act human.
Father kept his office in the attic, northside of the floor away from the sun. A government issue lamp, black and fluorescent, low to his work, dimly lit the center of a desk that looked like it weighed a ton. Perfectly laquered cherry perhaps, or rosewood, definitely not oak. I don’t know what wood it was. But he had comic strips taped to its top and sides. Yellow, frayed, and ancient. Biting snippets of Andy Capp, and Pogo. I thought them cruel. Andy, an unemployed working class bloke in 1950s Northern England, bet on horses, fought with soccer players, and womanized. His long-suffering wife, Flo depressed me – her yells from the next room uncomfortably reminiscent of mother’s own calls to father; worse, he seemed to, as their mutual favorite Sinatra sang, to get a kick out of them. Belligerent, unskilled at any socially acceptable occupation, and usually drunk, Capp was father’s fantasy notwithstanding the pun on Capp’s name. Father hated puns. He bet “name that tune” by radio, not horses at the track, like Andy, and my parents own marriage counseling was brief but with the portent of Andy’s and Flo’s sessions. A strip taped atop Father’s desk was simply a panoramic shot of a counseling office with several file cabinets devoted entirely to the Capps. But the Capps had no kids; there were four in our family. “The shrink told me I’d married a bachelor who was a pretty good family man; the rest was up to me,” mother said when I turned thirty, just months before Father deemed me old enough to speak of sex -- and so then alluded to some rabbit-like proclivity on one or both, or one of their parts.
“It was lucky we were older when we married or we would have had more of a brood.”
Mother stood at the kitchen counter chopping cucumbers, for the required iceberg lettuce salad, served at five pm, the usual uncivilized military time, even then, when I was thirty and visiting (having lived on my own for almost fifteen years) and said, “I only wanted two children.”
Invisible, I went to the freezer and plinked a few cubes in a glass.
Years ago, I’d have wanted to disappear.
Father read comics and called my mother “mountain folk.” I hated when he said this. But the impact didn’t last; after all, Sophia Loren was mountain folk.
I did not know that “Simple J. Malarkey” a character in Pogo, looked exactly like Senator McCarthy in bobcat drag. Did feel something ominous about the creatures who inhabited his swamp and tried to rid it of unseen subversives, like the “germs” Molester Mole sprayed with pesticides while a stuck-up rat Deacon preached in Gothic-lettered balloons. Birds scarier than Hitchcock’s assisted the mole and indicted everyone including Malarkey. “He once befriended us, and everybody knows what scurvey scum WE used to be,” the birds said, and alighted on their leader, a pig who looked like Khrushchev. Pogo’s creator, Walt Kelly, defended art against government regulation, went before the congressional subcommittee and proceeded to charm members with his drawings and the force of his personality.
The comic strip was safe for satire.
That was then.
There is a reason the strips were so yellow – with age. Wickedly funny, these strips seemed mean-spirited to a six year old. My age separated me from my father. No one else – or so I thought – even knew what Pogo was, let alone Malarkey.
This would be our problem.
Father coaxed me to read other comics that were not taped to his desk. Dick Tracy made sense then. Father in his gray fedora, striped tie, white shirt, and suits solely brown, black or slate, looked a bit like Tracy, had a no-holds-barred honesty and an intolerance for hypocrisy. If Capp was father’s id then perhaps Tracy was his superego. There is no way of telling.
Their devices fused them further than their everyday dark suits and jutting chins. “Would you like Santa to bring you a two-way wrist radio for Christmas?” Father said as I watched an installation of “Dick Tracy and the Man with No Face.”
Horrors, I thought, an electronic leash. If it was a radio, surely a one-way would get better reception. He’d already installed light sensors on our property decades before you could buy them; so much for sneaking in or out the house after dark. Later, when I could legally drive, he wired the car so the engine would not even turn over unless everyone had seat belts on. My friends and I levitated to no avail. “Spooky,” they’d say. And so we strapped.
Tracy wiretapped long before electronic surveillance existed in the real world, using a “voice – o – graph” to identify criminals by their voiceprints. He also had a space coupe to deposit and trap criminals on the moon. I liked the moon part. But not the ships when Tracy was a navy spy during WWII, ships like those in “Dick Tracy on the High Seas;” I recognize them now from the Norfolk Naval Base, as the monstrosities seemingly made out of lead that Father brought us on, like they were Disneyland. In October 1962, President Kennedy deployed these ships, including the USS Independence (presently scheduled to be sunk), as a blockade, to Cuba, where U2 spy plane photos had shown irrefutable evidence of missile sites placed by Krushchev. “Oh, shit! Shit! Shit! . . .” said RFK. There were weapons. On October 28th, according to his son, Sergei, Khrushchev said of his missile sites, "Remove them as soon as possible, before something terrible happens."
Perhaps warships thrilled my brothers – especially the U.S.S. Nimitz with its nuclear propulsion system and three rolling airframe missile (RAM) launchers. They patted the lead, went below, and battened the hatch above them. I stood on deck, drawn to the sea.
Father was not a sailor. He was however, like Dick Tracy’s friend Vitamin Flintheart, a hypochondriac (never missed a day of work), who took fistfuls of . . .guess. I liked that Flintheart quoted Shakespeare; didn’t like his opinion that girls with guns were only out to fuck men. In the sole incident when Tracy’s colleagues were women, Flintheart, in an act slightly unworthy of Iago, said to Tracy seconds before he had to leave his wife, Trueheart, “Policewomen? Ha! A man is confronted with jeopardy from all sides.
In the end, when I was six, gunplay kept me from digging Tracy’s strip. And though I got used to the deformities, it seemed to me everyone but Dick and the girl had them -- his world was as welcome to me as loud explosions were to my Catholic Father’s saints.
I much preferred my sister’s choice of animation, a single-frame strip with an innocent duo. Posters of Love Is . . . were propped against the wall of the bedroom we shared on the second floor. We weren’t allowed to tape anything to our desks or hang anything on the walls. Because ladders, hammers, even thumbtacks, with their capacity for tetanus, could be deathly; and then there would be marks, holes even, when inevitably we, Father’s princesses, left. And so Love . . .was not fastened. Love is . . . taking the ups and downs with a smile. In this poster naked skaters had skidded, cold, bruised and beautific. To this day I have trouble keeping my clothes on. Sister wore as little as possible. Father would have liked us in chadoors. “Jeepers, creepers, where’d you get those peepers,” he’d say to me. Father’s eyes were pale, the color of ashes. Mine were coal. Sometimes when he returned from business trips to Saudi Arabia, he’d put his Imperial handkerchief before my face, just below the eyes. And laugh. Though not so much as he laughed when he talked about the time he walked through, as he told it, a cobblestone alley in England and “just happened to glance” at a veiled woman whose husband – Father bared his teeth in imitation – “looked like he was going to kill” him. Gosh all git up, how’d you get so lit up? The first time he told the anecdote, when I was six, I believed he’d seen the overreaction of a jealous man, and against my instinct -- innocuous eyes. By the time I was thirteen I knew Father had been “guilty;” he was still talking about it. The desire to have sexual relations originates, not with a slap on the ass, but with the look one person gives another. At least for me. The woman must have been very beautiful, and the three had all been a bit out of place. Woe is me, gotta put my cheaters on. I knew by then Father strictly adhered to the customs of any country he worked in. I also knew that if mother was approached by any man at the rare social function we’d attend, say, a wedding, Father appeared seemingly out of nowhere and physically came between his wife and the other. (My parents could have been at opposite ends of the room; he by the fountain where little American kids got drunk on jets of Prosecco, sometimes sticky with white peach juice; mother hardly aware of her departed lover who was who knows where -- unless we, her kids, were by the fountain). She called him by name; he called her wife.
I can still imagine the veiled woman’s opulent eyes. How they hypnotize! Father’s eyes freaked me out when I was a kid; they seemed, cataracted. Later I was fascinated by their singularity. My myopic eyes are as unnatural in size as his were in color. I have to have contacts specially made here, though I can often get them over-the-counter abroad. There are tons of people with big eyes. But I’ve not seen anyone yet with eyes the color of Father’s. Where’d you get those eyes?
When Father knew how much my sister and I adored the un-appled eden of Love Is . . . , he began to cut them out of one of his newspapers each day, sign and date them in his perfect cursive script, and present us each night with a new naked aphorism. Although Father thought Love Is . . . ridiculous, and saw love as comic foil, or perennial tragedy.
In addition to comics, Father left a veritable archive of newspaper clippings behind when he died; they ranged from historic moon landing, to wars, to the nutritional value of legumes. His cursive notes were like this, too. Grocery lists and sketched blueprints of the Pentagon. Understandably overwhelmed, mother threw them out.
It was by his desecrated desk of indefinite wood, that Father summoned me, out of kindness after the meatball incident, in which I decided to stop eating meat and was made by mother to sit at the table until I did and when I didn’t was sent to my room fed up with the cold red-stained relic at eleven pm; soon after grandma, my mother’s mother who lived with us after her husband’s death, snuck up and helped me eat the bulk of it. To this day I neither eat too much meat (and when I do it’s raw) nor trust men who don’t eat meat. In any case, the inconsequence of whatever it was I was reprimanded for had made way for the skipping whistling girl in the attic – after all mother’s scolding could have sprung from anything; from not eating a dish to eating, in a feral way, from the fridge, to not keeping my red t-straps clean on my walk through the woods, where I’d searched for food of my own to sustain me, though wild blueberries alone would not do – if only I could make bread from what looked to me like wheat stalks (but were in fact grass). Kids are resilient.
“Let me tell you why your mother does not love you as much as your older brother.” Father said from behind his behemoth of a desk.
I stopped skipping.
He implied that we shared reasons for her shortcomings in love. And before I knew about sex, in that moment, though I do not remember exactly what he said to make me think this, only the pathos of a parent confiding cryptically, and its effect, that of a half-known villain on Batman, whose laser-powered cold gun shot, stunned, and froze me there; and in my stasis, I deduced that my father, irrefutably our father (I’d later learn he’d not begotten my older siblings) implied some other (in my mind, illicit) love (perhaps incomparable like Catwoman?) had fathered my brother. I did and did not believe it. “It’s the way of the world; Freud and biology.”
Father always spoke to me as if I were forty. My mother said I was born forty.
“It’s not your fault.” It was always my fault.
Beyond the brunt I was suddenly bummed. Silent. And very aware that whatever this man was saying, and however good his intentions – it was not something an adult should be saying to a child.
Shortly afterward I decided to have my father arrested for abuse.
It was not at that moment, but days later when he stood sweating under the hood of our car, a winged Plymouth of cerulean blue with white racing stripes, a red toolbox beside him. “Come here and hand me a wrench.”
I got up from my big wheel. It was too conspicuous. And began walking toward Quincy to the police station.
It’s always the little things.
I walked and walked. I walked miles for civic duty. Then outside the precinct, seeing the cops red nosed as Capp, I backed off and thought of my mother. What would she do with dad in jail? Like any child, I often believed in my own power, perhaps to make up for lack of it. I couldn’t be held responsible for the demise of our family, and so I walked back, unafraid, to where I’d begun.
When I was four, after the tumult of 1968, I walked with Father to Coney Island, which amounted to at least five miles from our Brooklyn home, its darkness a requisite for brownstones, ours narrower than most; the first floor kitchen, where I typed each morning on the bright red, plastic Olivetti Valentine, while my older brother and sister humored me and readied themselves for Catholic school, seemed to stretch just three desks wide, and overlooked the not-yet-choleric East River and its Liberty. I knew Father’s account of how I refused to walk back from the beach. “Carry me!” I said. He’d taken joy in my command and placed me atop his shoulders. I saw the city’s buildings and broken glass, its people of all sorts, some plump with moled stomachs, or thin, miniskirted like sister, their pink bushes of cotton candy aloft; people who kissed on beach blankets, people who watched, rich people out for a spin on the Cyclone, poor people holding, with hope, infants. Seas of people in streets full of brutality and celebration: New Yorkers make up the most expansive soul I know.
I wanted to meet them all.
And so on my red tricycle I rode the streets of Brooklyn, stopping at the stoops whose inhabitants most interested me. I liked the nuns big brother hated (he lit his Think and Do books on fire in back of class); enjoyed the man with big eyebrows, a Homberg hat, and a taste for digestives, made with myrtle leaves, that I liked more than the drops of wine mixed with water we kids were served at dinner. And I adored Homberg’s sister, who, like grandma, stared with wonder at the East River, sometimes saying, “Bastardos.” No one was swimming, no bodies floated, and so I projected this pejorative onto boats.
Homberg’s sister broke from her trance, turned to me, laughed, and then we laughed harder, together, for different reasons. I knew then her curse was for figures so far from me they’d forever remained shrouded. What mattered in that moment was that my mistake became sun that brightened our winter faces. I was careful to entertain these strangers, my angels unaware. They made me smile.
But when they asked what Father did, my ebullience flagged.
“I don’t know.”
“Why do you whisper?”
“I do? I have dark thoughts and so I whisper.” I whispered.
“How old are you?” said Homberg.
His sister said “Have a cookie.”
I’d refuse, or take two.
“Is it because someone will catch you?” said Homberg.
This made me smile. Let them try. My first memory, when all the world was shoes, when I first started to walk at one or so, was dodging Father beneath the dining room table. In a rare moment he tried to pick me up to show me off to the even rarer assembly of guests in our Brooklyn home. I remember they thought it was funny and I did not; rather, I was distressed at the thought of being caught, at the realization that my newfound mobility was ineffectual. Only it wasn’t. I got away.
Eventually someone at home found I was missing. “Have you seen her?” Sister, or sometimes mother asked. “She went that a way,” Homberg pointed toward the water.
Sometimes I rode fast enough to lift a wheel and ride on two. By the age of three I had been dubbed, by whom I cannot remember, “danger mouse.”
My father loved rides more than anything, crazy rides that would make me throw up. He got shot 250 feet in the air by the parachute jump, a contraption originally made to train men for war. And Roller Coasters were Father’s favorite fling; at Coney Island, the Cyclone; in Virginia, where we moved when I was eight, the Rebel Yell and some upside-down-loop-di-loop torture device whose name I can’t recall. Perhaps he knew the rides were secure; perhaps they were a way that he, a bachelor father, and a pocket-protector engineer (or so by six I gathered), could exercise a penchant for thrills. He’d have ridden the Skeleton if he could. I had other ideas.
In daylight on Route 95, when I was twenty, and traveling back to New York after seeing my parents, I blew the boy who would become my first husband while he drove eighty, then, surprised, slowed to seventy. Don’t stop took on new meaning.
Father wanted us safe.
I was drawn to the forbidden: people, places, and things. Though not all at once. Because I could not entirely fob off father’s desire my own was dichotomy. And an anchor in a storm destroys a vessel more thoroughly than if it cuts waves to go out to sea.
My father married late and in love with my mother, who, while pregnant with my brother and holding the hand of my sister, had seen her first husband die in the sea. His skull was crushed by the boom of a boat. Bastardo. Thrown overboard from his craft, the Don Juan, as if lifted by an unspeakable teacup ride. Then he knew whether there was god or not, and for mother it would forever be the latter. Just before he sank, he swam, for moments, closer, still closer to mother and the lone and level sands of pre ‘60s Sheepshead Bay, so named for its Sheepshead fish, a fossilish fish with human-seeming incisors, that no longer exists. The water she looked across, between Rockaway Inlet and Long Beach Bridge, is lifeless now. Its bottom smothered by effluent waste.
Mother’s first husband had been sailing with her brother. My sister, then three, wore a sailor suit, light blue with a white square knot at the neck. She would wear sailor tanks, in navy, with red, until the age of fourteen. Big brother, not yet born, would sail as soon as he could, for the rest of his life. Mother retired the pink ‘50s pin-up tank she’d worn then. And she never wore a bathing suit again.
Mother thought that if she could swim, she’d have saved her first husband. But this was not the case. A dead man can’t drown.
Father lived through the Depression; his readiness for annihilation and deprivation showed in the cans lining shelves in our garage, dated to prevent botulism. And how would I – a child born into a country without scars from any war – how would I have known to fear bombs or botulism – were it not for my father, who would keep me safe from both.
I have since thought more about fear and my father, and I have concluded that the WWII vet who had worked on codes making the world safe for democracy, was, no less than many fathers, a protector. And so it is safe to say he left me vulnerable. Yet with him went my “boogeyman.” His word. A word often used at my bedtime. “The Boogeyman’s going to get you if you don’t watch out.” I pondered the meaning of “get.” Words were easily researched at the public library; back then they had books. History books. Tomes on etymology. Bogumils (Bulgaris), or Bogomils, literally “fathers” in Bulgarian -- were heretics, whatever that meant. They were the source for father’s word. Thus the saying, “If you see a Bulgarian, hit him. He’ll know what it’s for.”
Relevant definitions of the root (sans “man”) included:
1. A cause of annoyance or harassment.
2. A golf score of one stroke over par.
3. An unidentified flying aircraft.
1. Eidolon: An image of an ideal.
2. Revenant: One who returns after death.
3. Shade n. 13. A present reminder of a person or situation in the past.
“Get” might mean know; this is what scared me. The Shadow knew. “Who knows what evil lurks in the heart of men? The Shadow knows…” said Father if I woke early enough in the shaded house to eat oatmeal with him. I shook my head, knowing it was fiction, a radio show that fell silent in the 50s, too old for me to have ever heard, except in parody. The Shadow was a man with hypnotic powers to cloud men’s and women’s minds so they could not see him. The Shadow was sex, violence, a French kiss followed by a quick kick to the groin. The Shadow’s kids existed in disbelief of their dad’s world. In The Shadow everything you know is wrong. The Shadow’s enemy is his American persona; he’s a spy from Shamballa who mocks the world he protects. The Shadow was mushroom cloud-obsessed ultravixens. The Shadow was a cripple with telekinetic powers fucking his trophy wife, a game show hostess crazier than cat shit.
The Shadow was not for kids.
Neither was the oatmeal. Quaker Oats, in no way Quaker, used children in radioactivity experiments from 1945 to 1956.
“The Boogeyman.” “Who knows what evil lurks. . .” Who knows who knows who knows? Words words. Father’s words. For things I would not have known without him. But I wonder how much words came into play. I wonder now if I simply absorbed his reality – if it became my fear. By age thirteen I had correctly deduced my father’s frequent trips to Nevada spelled n-u-c-l-e-a-r t-e-s-t-i-n-g. With him, the red end was always near; and so I waited for a cloud to mushroom beyond my brightly colored curtains. Nuclear attack was the reality of those older than myself. And though it was, and still is true, my peers feared no such thing. His last words to me were “be careful.”
It was a warm night in 1997, Quaker Oats had settled their radiation suit, Joe’s Pizza on Bleecker Street was still Joe’s Pizza; cops, bikers, kids from the projects, stoned Armani-clad moguls, and Oliver Stone all stood in the brightly lit space, munching slices and downing Stewart’s Root Beers while looking out onto the small triangular park across the street, where in darkness people, some homeless, sat on crowded benches. I was seeing a man whose heart, though I knew it not then, was in constant turbulent riot. Tall, with tanned skin stretched taut over his inscrutable face, and green eyes. (I was a sucker for green eyes.) I remember Father had by this time taken to referring to him as the Sheik of Araby, and when I said, “He’s not…” Father said “Yes. He is.” And when I asked why, he said, “the beard.” He’d only a photo to go on. He’d no way of knowing, or did he? I’d called my love “Bedouin,” when in our early days he’d surprise me late at night and camp out. Into your tent I will creep.
The Bedouin and I walked down Sixth Avenue toward Bleecker Street, to Joe’s.
“Promise me one thing,” he said.
“If I can.”
“Promise you’ll never be scared of me.”
Did he want me to be scared of him, or did he sense in me some innate distaste for “boogeymen.” As a child, it seemed to me my father conjured monsters for fun. I’d hated his words and the way that he, a serious man, laughed when he said them. Most likely it was a bid for affection, no more well-received by me than the advances of a pimple-faced boy toward an unwilling girl seated next to him at a horror flick. I remember being highly annoyed by my father. If I gave him the hug he might have wanted, it would be as false as the pretext upon which it was based; if I allowed my father to protect me against made-up monsters I myself would become unreal.
How was I to know that his monsters were real?
Fran Gordon, founder of the National Art Club's PAGE reading series, also directs FDU's MFA in Writing reading series. Her novel, Paisley Girl was a finalist for QPB's New Voices Award. She teaches in The New School Writing Program, and for The Pan African Literary Festival. Classified, written for Gordon's father, a liberal agent of defense intelligence examines the intersection of public events with private lives.