Scheherazade – II — My Father
My father’s desire to leave an inheritance to his sons was a torment of Greek proportions. He was a book editor by profession, first in academic presses at the University of Chicago and Cambridge University and later for various trade publishing houses in Manhattan.
But the non-fiction publishing for which he was so intellectually suited was a poor match for the scale of his financial ambitions. He was no more likely to make his fortune through the modest library of ideas he was shepherding into existence than find a book worth reading in the hard treasure of Ali Baba’s cave. As a result, his professional life was punctuated by destructive and wasting entrepreneurial fevers – fevers that wreaked havoc on his psyche and his family and disturbed the larger trajectory of his otherwise competent and honorable career. The Sirens had him, and my father was swept back and forth across their cruel promontory, crying “open sesame” into mouthfuls of seawater.
In the late 1960’s Barry Ralph Nathan was the publisher of a trailblazing computer periodical that smoked and sparked for a season but did not catch fire. Twelve issues of Forum ’69 turned into, at most, two or three issues of Forum ’70. He pursued the vision of realizing a multi-volume Encyclopedia of Biomedical Ethics, an idea of staggering scale and ambition that he chased with a Renaissance encyclopedist’s vision and tenacity – all leading to frustrating dead ends.
More modestly, he later gathered a desktop full of college application essays for a how-to guidebook he would publish under his own imprint. Years after his death, I came across a reflection of that book wandering through a major book retailer as I was heading towards the parking lot. With my young son pulling at my arm to get home, I read the shiny back cover blurb and skimmed the essays and the helpful tips lit up in yellow starburst page call-outs. I stood there, tugged by generational forces visible and invisible, and I let the sharp pain bloom of my father’s vision realized by someone else’s hand.
In a latter day entrepreneurial outbreak there were do-it-yourself ElectroniKit books that nearly found their way to bookstore shelves, coming closer to a verdict from an actual consumer than anything he’d piloted for years. The four handsomely designed ElectroniKit books had appealing covers with arcs of narrowing-in-the-center titles. The graphic design recalled the 19th century big-top. Beneath the bold Benefit of Mr. Kite circus-poster lettering there was a cutaway circle visible through the shrink wrap where a single integrated chip was visible, center-stage, out on the wires of an embedded circuit board.
With the purchase of supplemental parts from Radio Shack, the do-it-yourselfer could follow the instructions on the enclosed schematics, painstakingly tested by my father, and the armchair engineer could build himself one of a series of kits, including an “electronic butler” clap-on clap-off switch, a wireless microphone, and a multi-effect sound synthesizer. Through the death of his business partner and then one interpersonal breakdown or another, the kits never made it stores; the books instead accumulated in cardboard boxes in the corner of his apartment, their blue packing popcorn spilling onto the vacated circus grounds.
My father never owned a home or carried a credit card. He didn’t have a retirement plan. He had little interest in the world of quotidian financial tools. The middle-class Money Magazine vision of “best buys,” “editors’ top mutual funds” and carefully squirreled assets both bored and unsettled him.
But for the arcane systems and instruments of capitalism he held a deep reverence, even awe. He knew – and had seen among friends, up close – the magic those tools could render in the right hands. He loved the wizardry of the securities markets, auction strategies, options, and arbitrage. He loved the tiny margins set aside for the House and the mansions those set-asides could build.
Long before the advent of Excel and Lotus 1-2-3, he loved the ordered precision and authority of spreadsheets, green and quadrille-gridded. Chesterfield in hand he would set sail, standing over those sheets arrayed on his table and spilling onto his chair, the financial captain on his quarterdeck. He would check course, make adjustments in entrepreneurial navigation, sequestering the worlds of the known from the unknown in his charts of accounts and forecasts. With his index finger twitching thoughtfully against his lips, he would look down at his financial maps, colored the soft green of currency, and therein divine the scale and arrival dates of his coming fortune. There was a tantalizing world looming in those penciled figures, a New World, a world of turquoise waters, golden sands, and awe-struck children emerging from the trees like Indians.
You could rest when you got there.
You could slow.
Or stop completely.
In the interim, he labored over his financial maps, reshaping estimations in his careful, architectural block letters, carrying, rounding, erasing figures and blowing clear their crumpled corpses, correcting calculations, transporting his entrepreneurial vision into the reality of ciphers, getting it all on paper where it could be real. On weekends when his boys visited he would share those spreadsheets, looking down at the calculations from his summit, showing the dream coming together in promising subtotals, the numbers reflecting back the soft moonlight that he himself radiated onto the page.
The company name that housed his entrepreneurial visions for the last two decades of his life was Christopher/Adam, Inc. This corporation made flesh in the names of his beloved sons was the vehicle through which he would leave his achievement. But the execution of each Christopher/Adam effort had a trajectory that became terribly and tragically predictable for his investors, for his family, and for him. The dream ship descended the boat launch in mad, stop-motion Kinetoscope, and tipped nose-first into the harbor. The hot air balloon snarled on its moorings and ignited the rigging. The six-winged plane crashed off its rickety wooden tower and scattered the spectators. And always my father in top hat and waist coat circled the wreckage, herky-jerky, pulling his hair out at 14 frames per second.
The stakes were terrifying for him. My father wasn’t a hobbyist. He wasn’t a dabbler. He wasn’t toying with the pursuit of wealth; his identity was caught up in it. All expressions of elegance, of manners, of breeding, of class – considerations of the deepest importance for him – could only be legitimized by wealth. Wealth was the red blood that would run through his wax figure and make him real. In the absence of that lifeblood, all style, grace and intellect were a poor man’s theater – even if you were actually elegant, well-bred and classy which my father unquestionably was – both by breeding and instinct.
You can play a king and you can mount the stage in costume ermine and wave your broom-handle scepter and dismiss your fool and divide your kingdom among the players, but theater is theater if you don’t believe in it. No matter how the crowd weeps and roars, if you go home to an actor’s tiny apartment with a dollhouse kitchenette it’s all so much sound and fury. And you cannot fool the Self who makes the rules, our one true and terrible Lord, and you cannot touch your weightless finger to His scales.
Your loved ones can’t either. The stakes were terrifying for all of us.
When there was no active dream to keep things at equilibrium, or when the failure of a project was unfolding inexorably, there would be a violent fever, and it would vault him skyward like a rag doll. His North Star would spin wildly about him, his world all heads and heels and the open webbing of fingertips. At sickening apogee, he would slow into speechless confusion, his head hanging limply, listless, upside-down tears floating in his eyes.
Far below, the hard, flat world of failure with its imagined whispers and recrimination would steel itself to rush back at him. There was no reaching him there. There were just two boys on joint-custody weekends waiting for the fever to break, exchanging covert glances, offering their father tentative, child-like encouragements. And there was their father, stumbling and scratched, pursued by the echo of his wandering barks.
As the years cycled through, his possibilities gradually diminished, winking out like a magnificent Gothic cathedral being put to sleep for the night, its thousand candles snuffed by a steady, solitary priest shuffling the stone transept.
In the end there was no bandstand by the lake. There were no swans. There were no summer waltzes or floating Chinese lanterns or champagne toasts where other men’s beautiful wives held his gaze overlong. There were no giggling, barefoot girls in white dresses running across his July lawn. The midnight laughter of tuxedoed bachelors did not carry out from the upstairs library. There were no parents making sure their sleepy children thanked Barry before the drive home.
No law firm manning the will, no working through the weekend, no team of razor-sharp attorneys. There were no doctors stationed at the house holding calls. There was no dying in a vast bed with French lace pillows and thick, spiraling four-poster columns. There was no inheritance to contest. There were no disappointments at the reading.
There was no drama.
My father died on Christmas Day.
There was snow outside the frosty upstairs bedroom window. There was cold blue light on a Minnesota lake. A month or so before, his children’s mother and his ex-wife of twenty years drove halfway across the country to move in with him and be by his side. She ran fairy lights over the windows to cheer things, and the two sat together on that bed for hours and, as they always had, read and joked and laughed and then, having accidentally stumbled over some ancient bit of mischief, they fought, storming in and out of the room. Then, with neither apology nor explanation, they’d find some excuse to get along again and off they’d go.
A dance of sorts.
My father’s bedside table was cluttered with plastic syringes and saline bottles. There was a medical device with a respiratory ping pong ball that hurt him to blow into, but whose toy-like quality, even in his cancer-ridden pain, amused him. There was Vaseline for his dry lips and crumpled tissues and modest turrets of pocket change that my father stacked by denomination. There was his bulky yellow Casio diver’s watch. There were old National Reviews. There was a plaster cast of his hand entwined with my brother’s that his sister had molded during her farewell visit. There were piles of cards from grieving friends trying to get something down before goodbye. There were New York Times book review sections haphazardly folded. Pairs of glasses. His things.
Arriving from New York the day before he died, Melanie and I kept vigil, steady sextons wafting our thuribles, relaying morphine to the altar, saying the evening prayers, stroking his brow, holding his hand, washing him with carefully warmed cloths. I lay next to him on the bed, first pillow to pillow then head to temple. From a far away somewhere he heard himself addressed by his younger son as “Poppy” for the first time in his life. It was the endearment with which he always signed his letters, and even though I stubbornly resisted its soft edge, it was the word that perfectly expressed who he wanted to be for his sons, and I returned it to him.
We kept him cool, then we kept him warm, ministering to him like a beloved child. We let him know it would be okay to let go when he was ready, and we assured him in tearful whispers that we’d all be okay, moving ourselves and our father through the instinctual liturgy of surrender. A priest on call that Christmas evening led my father through his Last Rites as the rich draught of morphine gradually filled the last recesses of the cathedral and the final candles were extinguished.
And with that, my father – my intellectually terrifying, fierce, visionary, frustrating, elegant, and griffin-hearted father – slipped down and backwards.
Evensong fading into the Great Silence.
The Book of Hours closing.
Mary in the dark.
That same night in some other infirmary room of the heart Christopher/Adam Inc. expired unmourned and forgotten, its balance sheet, for all intents and purposes, dead even.
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Feel something. Twice a week.