Shootout with father
by Marianne Hauser
© 2002

Shoot the motherfucker!

I'm ranting through a wet dream. I stick the gun into my mouth and wake up. The phone is ringing. But as soon as I've wiped the cum off my fingers, the ringing stops.

Did I miss an urgent call from Ms. Q, advising me of her boss' imminent passage to the beyond?

Or a call from the boss himself: My Son, come over right away. I am old and I need your love.

Not bloody likely, Buster, I correct myself, borrowing from his repertoire of snarled comebacks.

Still snowing, and the afternoon is trapped in the same false twilight. I must have slept less than a minute. But the dream has dredged up what I'd rather leave buried-the real gun which Father gave me some months ago for my birthday. Not that he gave it to me in person. That's not his style. He sent his chauffeur up with it, the old man meanwhile waiting downstairs in the hearse. Or so I fancied. I didn't look.

A small pistol, bedded in an alligator case which I'd snapped open in naive anticipation. There on purple velvet lurked the murder weapon. Was I to blow myself away on my birthday? Was that the message? And I gingerly extracted his business card from under the black barrel.

No affection. No happy returns. Only his signature plus a strong smell of cigars which, however, did strike me as an intimate note. For Father's very flesh exudes a smell of fine tobacco, although he is fanatically opposed to smoking. It's one of his vexing paradoxes that keep you guessing.

Did he come by the smell through osmosis? For tobacco ranks high on the golden scale of his multinational ventures, though at his office and house, smoking is strictly verboten. I still recall with a thrill when, home from boarding school at Christmas, I sneaked into the armory and crunched my cigarette into the million dollar visor of a Maximilian soldier as the strains of Silent Night floated in from another wing of our baronial mansion.

But the gun triggered no such memories from my school days at Hotcock's-a nickname which we perennially horny youngsters had bestowed upon Hitchcock's Academy. I loathed the school. I couldn't wait till the next break, except for fall when my old man was sure to drag me along one of his hunting trips in the northern woods and bust my balls, teaching me to shoot for the kill like a man.

I refused. The crown of a deer would emerge from the thicket. He'd whisper, Aim. I'd stare at the ground and fire into the pine needles.

At last he gave up making a man of me. Enough's enough, he muttered through his teeth. He grabbed the rifle from my sweaty hands and strode off in contemptuous silence, his crimson coat fading slowly among the tall, impervious trees.

I stayed behind, for once ahead of the game, and twice relieved as I peed into the carpet of dry needles....

Once upon a time Father was bewitched by the far away past. He would become an archaeologist, would excavate the vestiges of early man and crack the mystery of the Greek mysterion. It was to be the fulfillment of a passionate dream.

Why let himself be sucked into corporate business, play patsy to a family tradition, a world completely alien to his nature? If he loses his inheritance, amen. It may be for the best. He'll make his own fortune, start at the bottom and rise to the top. His destiny was written in the stars.

I am paraphrasing from a letter to Mother whom he began to court while she was still in her early teens and he already a graduate student at university.

My dear little lady, he wrote. I have told you my ultimate dream....

His letters to Mother.... For years I'd been burning to get my hands on them. But he had declared them off limits, and she would not cross his orders. But on that fateful day of the gun, a miracle occurred. She took the letters from the safe, determined to show them to me. I now regret that I didn't ask what triggered her singular act of defiance which was also her last. She died soon after.

You may read them at the house. Your father won't be home till late, she had assured me on the phone. It's your birthday and since you've always been so curious about our courtship, I mean the letters.... I wish the two of you could be friends....

Friends? A sweet wish, but an unlikely option, I thought as I made the pilgrimage to the house, content that the old man wouldn't be lurking inside while I'd be digging up what he was anxious to withhold from me.

Marching north in a brisk April wind, from downtown to the family stronghold, I pictured him at his club holding court by the fire in a chiaroscuro of aged mahogany and tooled leather; validating a billion dollar deal with a bourbon straight up. One shot was his self-imposed limit.

The scene kindled a whim to join him in a drink by the fire but was quickly snuffed out as a cabby screeched to a halt at my feet with the prophetic cry, Ahgonna-killallyafuckinmawthafuckers!

So, having skirted death while sleepwalking through Manhattan's worst gridlock, I arrived in front of the house.

There at the royal gate I took a breather. I scraped a mess of dog shit off my shoe. I lit a cigarette and offered one to the security guard, a lad black as the road and fantastically handsome.

Light up, my friend. The man's away.

He looked amused, but he refused.

The man's away. A reassuring thought. However, gaining the vestibule, I was haunted by the notion that he was still in his castle, checking my every move through the eye holes of a battle-bruised Teutonic suit of armor which stood guard by the staircase to Mother's quarters; a spiral staircase, ripped off some 13th century cloister and smuggled out of Thessalonike to be bought by him for a steal.

He tailed me with the echo of my footsteps as I began the circular ascent, his shadow merging with mine on the ramp up and around the spiral.

Hurry, dear!

Mother waving me on from the top of the stairs in a black cloud of chiffons-a gown designed to masquerade her weight. To me she resembles a widow in mourning over a dead marriage.

You look tired, Jamsie. Do you get enough sleep?

I sleep far too much, Mother.

Me too. Sometimes I sleep all day. She smiles. The black cloud floats into the living room. Her boudoir. On a fragile table, amid lacy tea things and bric-a-brac, the box with his letters. A plain, gray metal box. A poor doll's coffin.

Your father needn't learn of our secret. Hush.... Did you hear? She clasps my hand and listens-for the sound of his car? His voice? I have heard nothing.

It was nothing. Don't mind me, Jamsie. I had a bad night.

She takes the letters from the box and sits down below the window facing east: a cathedral window of Art Nouveau stained glass erotica. Anorexic, ivy-crowned unisex nudes cavort among tropical creepers and lilies in mildly suggestive poses which spawned my first adolescent orgy of masturbation on her cushiony couch.

She is handing the letters over to me. Not a word to your father. Promise. And please do read him with charity.

With charity for all..., oh Mother, still shielding the man for whom you have ceased to exist, except at public functions when he needs you by his side to prove his dubious masculinity with a load of romantic bull, kissing the nape of your neck as he helps you out of your wrap, brushing over your bosom as if by accident, acting the horny hubby.... Disgusting.

She sits below the darkening window, faceless, shapeless, useless from long neglect-his little lady, the wisp of a girl he courted for her lively childlike beauty, and married-why? To certify his manhood black on white? Or for her dad's political connections? Or after all for love?

I switch the lights on. Charity? I'll make an effort, Mother.

I help her get up from the low-slung couch. We embrace. And gathering the folds of her black gown, she leaves me alone with his letters.

They were held together by an unromantic rubber band which snapped as I riffled the pages like so many playing cards. Which was the joker? I broke the pack and picked a letter. Would my old man sweep down in vengeance from Mt. Olympus? For the letter gave a graphic account of Hera bathing nude in the sacred spring to recover her virginity after Zeus had invaded her maidenly body.

At first blush I figured he'd used the top god's pubescent wife as a stand-in for Mother-a case of metaphoric child abuse, I told myself. But scanning the text again, I had to scratch that interesting contingency. His dear little lady was wiped off the picture. (As for his identity with Zeus, you be the judge.)

I reexamined the text in search of a clue. He'd hiked and picnicked in the woods with friends. They had hunted for a secluded stream to bathe in the nude at sundown and found it in "a piney grove awash with the sylvan aura of ancient Greece."

So far so good. But the friends-are they female or male? Are they both? He won't say. Like Mother, they fall by the way side as he sails off on his own nonstop from Massachusetts, USA, into a mythical Grecian sunset.

Naked among granite boulders he is watching through the laurel in a gold and copper light. Watching. Waiting. Never touch. Bathing small, pebble-slick breasts with his eyes. Bathing hairless mount veneris pebble sleek between slim boy thighs....

Forgive me if I've paraphrased too freely. It's some months since my birthday, the day of the gun, and my memory, unlike Father's, is not photographic. However, I can assure you that I have faithfully retained the spirit behind the letter. One has to read my old man between the lines....

Suddenly, the unforeseen. The joker in the pack of cards pops up in the shape of L.C.: a splendid looking older man of forty plus. A mental giant. Rhodes scholar and rodeo champ. Expert on jazz and Wagner. Creator of psychoanthropologic archaeology, an academic discipline he invented to stump his colleagues. Visiting prof and temp dept chair, his predecessor, a notorious hophead, having dropped dead after ingesting a yet to be analyzed substance from a pre-Columbian two-headed bowl.

I have culled the info from a medley of letters. Since few bear a date-an oddity of which I shall have to say more-it is uncertain just when my old man parlayed himself into the class of a campus legend whose popularity was so immense, one student was trampled to death in a stampede for seats.

According to the Boston Bugle, L. C. arrived at the grave side in tears to deliver a heart-rending eulogy. And the fire department issued an order to restrict attendance of L.C.'s classes to twelve.

We have no hint why Father missed the deadline for registration. My guess is he overslept. When he tries to register belatedly and is rejected, his rage is boundless. A petty, ignorant bureaucracy has spat on his rights, and he will demand a public apology.

Don't those assholes know who I am? Who my family is? He'll lay his grievances before the board of directors and force them to exempt him from the rules, or else....

Dreams of glory. Dreams of gore. Papal dispensation for the crown? If it weren't for Dad, I'd switch to Princeton tomorrow.

All this for the eyes of a schoolgirl who couldn't care less. But that won't stop him. His ego, that delicate structure of glass, is cracking and my future mother is a convenient dumping ground for plots of revenge.

Scratch the board of directors. Take the bull by the horns. Tomorrow he will audit L.C.'s classes, come hell or high water. Then, only then, if he deems the lecture worthy of his time and money, will he demand the professor's OK for belated enrollment.

...a fair request, sir, which you can dignify with a stroke of your facile pen, he states in an imaginary dress rehearsal. It won't prick my conscience to sit at your feet as your thirteenth disciple. But should it prick yours, a hired gun may be provided at your discretion to sacrifice one of the twelve and thus remain within the confines of the ordinance.

A jest, my good man. Just a jest. But be on guard. I have other tricks up my sleeve. For I come from a time-honored line of legalized tricksters, tradesmen, clergymen, aldermen, councilmen, congressmen....

Here the pedigree breaks off. The last word is inked out. But as I hold the letter to Mother's rose-shaded lamp, I swear I see the word hangmen under the ink.

Perhaps I misread. I can only report what I saw. I saw the gallows.

His vengeful ruminations may have propped up his ego and helped his digestion. A guy rejects you and you want to pay him back in kind. It's human nature. It's mine. But Father hasn't met the guy, not yet. He may have spied him from afar on campus, under an umbrella in the rain, or in a distant window through the trees in a whirlwind of autumn leaves.

But he had met him on a photo. He was still in boarding school when, browsing in a second hand bookstore, he ran across one of L.C.'s earliest works. A well-thumbed, amply illustrated first edition. The title, "Fertility Rites and Sacrificial Cannibalism Among the Murrhians of the Lower South Pacific," arouses instant curiosity. He buys the book and risks expulsion as he studies the dog-eared pages under the desk at Hitchcock's Academy, another family endowed institution where I too received primal enlightenment with one hand under the desk.

Graphic diagrams of sacred rites. Naked dancers male or female dressed in nothing but tattoos. Coiled on coral sand the Shaman transmorphing into the self-devouring serpent. Uncoils his long lean body, slithers, writhes. Spits in a sudden spray of sea foam and rears, penis in mouth, mouth his vagina.

Oops! Hardporn anthropology causes sex glands to produce too quickly. He is about to shut the book. But as though ordered by a subliminal voice, he turns to the next page, and there is the author.

There he sits, the great L.C., crosslegged by the ocean as he worships a phallic rock in a circle of tribal chieftains. Their bodies are tattooed. His is in khakis. And while the black Murrhians faces of his hosts are hidden behind horned, wooden masks, the face of their discoverer is bare, its whiteness sliced in two uneasy halves by the shadow of his tropical helmet.

So much for Father's adolescent vagaries. As for his adult schemes of revenge, they weren't only childish, they weren't necessary. If the registrar had shut him out, L.C., a law unto himself, would let him in. He should have approached the professor's lectern and asked for his permission. It was that simple.

In fact, he did precisely that. He made his request at the start of the first session, a bit weak in the knees perhaps, but in control of his emotions and demeanor as behooves a young gentleman of his status or mine. And-abracadabra-he was welcomed into the fold, not as the thirteenth disciple but more likely as the thirty-third.

I rub my eyes in disbelief. Father, whom I never saw defer to anyone, defers to L.C. as the master. Dig up the vestiges of ancient man. Breathe life into the corpse and make it dance. Chalked on the blackboard in exquisite penmanship by the master.

Need I say more? Father, copying the phrase into his notebook, takes pains to match the exquisite penmanship, but happens to write lice instead of life, a slip of the pen which he confides to the professor during an evening walk by the fogged river. L.C. reacts with wholesome laughter, but counsels due respect for such supposed slips-not for their paronomastic potential, he cautions, but for their cosmic relevance. And he follows up with a long discourse on the symbiotic absolute of life for which the lowly louse is no less fitting an example than is the mighty oak, etcetera etcetera.

Leave the flat land! Climb to the top of the mountain! Spread your wings and follow the eagle's flight beyond good and evil!

Comments Father: The master held me spellbound for nearly an hour. What a brain! What a man! A scholar with a poet's soul. And how he loves to quote Nietzsche!

Upon the word Nietzsche I burst into a volley of sneezes. A draft was blowing down my neck and the door slammed shut with a bang like a shotgun blast. Not the sort of blast one would expect in this neighborhood. I opened the door a crack to make sure that the royal fort hadn't come under attack by what hereabouts are known as the elements. But the only element was the wind as it howled through the marble vestibule, whistled up the monastic stairs and sent the letters helterskelter through the room.

I crawled on all fours to pick them up while I wondered again why so few bore a date. A man as time obsessed as my old man-why would he omit the date line? Of course he was a young man at the time, I had to prompt myself. Still I was puzzled.

Granted, a hint as to backdrop or weather helped me paint in the seasons. Autumn announced itself in a purple blaze of falling leaves. They stormed through the letters. They twirled, they rustled and crackled. One spotted maple leaf, fragrant and faultlessly shaped, sailed into my lap, though when I held it to the light, it crumbled to dust.

But most of the time it was winter. The campus was snow bound, and on the frozen pond in the night two silhouettes-L.C. and Father?-were skating under the starlight to a distant radio. Liebestraum? But when did the nocturnal shadow play take place? What month? What day? What hour?

You think I'm making a fuss over nothing. But think again. We aren't dealing with a slob like me who can't tell yesterday from tomorrow. We are dealing with my father, a stickler for punctuality. In his ledger, time is money. He works, eats, plays, sleeps, shits by the clock. He holds himself and all of us to a strict schedule. Not even the dead are excluded.

I'll give you a recent example. The night before Mother's funeral, just as I teeter on the edge of sleep, having tossed and turned and groaned in my hair shirt of guilt (the nameless little things I could have done for her why didn't I escort her to a revival of Guys & Dolls, a musical she adored); at five in the morning, just as I am about to catch some shut-eye before the trip to the cemetery, my old man phones to remind me that he expects me at the house at 9:25 a.m.

The cortège leaves for the cemetery at 9:30 sharp. Whoever is not in the library by then will have to manage on his own. Or hers, he adds with a noisy clearing of his throat. Your mother will be laid to rest at 1:00 p.m.

His throat is clogged with sinus congestion or grief.

I trust we won't have too many delays. The TV crew may slow us down, not to speak of those interminable elegies. I've put a cap on length and number. But there's no guarantee. People, especially our politicians, glory to hear their own voice, no matter how moronic the palaver. And God help us if my senile father-in-law should get it into his besotted head to orate nonstop in front of the mausoleum.

A snarl. A heavy cough. Then a sly chuckle. Well, son, I doubt you'll have to suffer through his blarney once they haul my mortal shell onto the shelf of the musty old charnel house.

He does have a streak of humor, however grim. But it would have been no joke if I'd gone to sleep and missed the cortège.

I almost missed it. Not that I fell asleep. I was too distraught. But I wasted precious minutes in futile search of a black tie. I had to borrow one in a hurry-from whom? My best bet was my namesake, the bartender Jimmy. I raced over to Paddy's where more precious minutes went down the drain and drinks down the hatch before generous but shaky Jimmy had secured his clip-on bow tie to my Brooks Brothers shirt.

The motorcade with the family car at the head was already on the move when I got to the house. But the car reserved for the household staff idled long enough for me to squeeze in with the help. They were in tears. They all had loved my mother.