got louder, and mothers abandoned their household chores, bringing
their infants with them. My mother and I joined them, and together
we listened to the unseen roar seemingly far away. I was three years old, my mother
holding my hand as we stood in the street outside our walk-up flat, that noise groaning
and thunderous in the summer-blue sky. Skokie, Illinois, declared all businesses closed
to celebrate V-J Day. If there was a phobia for the fear of looking at the sky, then that
day brought it on. The tension fueled by the interminable waiting to see the source
of the noise had been my first brush with paranoia. Normal anticipation transmogrified
into outright paranoiac reaction. Fear zinged through the others, or so I reckoned, and
my neurons spread out their receptors, soaking angst up. My anxiety translated into unreasonable
distrust and suspicion. What invisible bogeyman was about to slay me? If Ezra
Pound's line about poets being the antennae of the race held true, I would beam paranoia
for a thousand years.
should not mislead you: that was not my first memory, but second.
My first one was strolling through a park, again holding on to my
mother's hand, seeing bright, touchable flowers planted along the
perimeter of the serpentine walk. I saw those blooms as a gift.
The blossoms were my friends, and together we were in the sweet
bead of life. There had been no linkage between the two memories.
The continuum had been severed. One memory brought joy, the other
Some geniuses proclaimed memories while
in their mothers' wombs. Harry Crews addressed what happened ten
years before being born. We all knew Tristram Shandy. Gifted
Baudelaire wrote, "It is from the womb of art that criticism
was born." The Latin root for critic was decide and judge,
something I had done ruthlessly ever since V-J Day. Had I smelled
with my pink nose those flowers in the park, Les Fleurs du mal?
The flowers of the macabre. Had I breathed in pessimism from those
flowers? Would every step I took become in truth the Danse Macabre?
Baudelaire explored his isolation and melancholy, his attraction
to morbidity. Me too, commencing V-J Day. But I spoke Midwestern
English and never smoked opium.
And I had not forgotten his Spleen de
Paris. Spleen meant bad temper and spite, other shrewd attributes I manifested early. The Potowatomis, who lived
in Northern Illinois for centuries, had a name for "swamp": skokie. Since I was
in pre-suicidal mode, I had nothing to gain by doing away with myself as had depressed Robert
Frost when he entered the Great Dismal Swamp along the Virginia-North Carolina
border region. But in the spleen of Skokie, the erstwhile swamp, my life began. Yeah,
I nitpicked those literary allusions and etymology, but that was precisely how my twisted mind
best expressed earliest confusion.
Very soon, overhead, controlled pandemonium
enveloped me as I craned my neck and looked up from the now crowded street. Planes clothed the sky with
a booming presence, gathered not like storm clouds but a hungry force unfathomable to
me. B-29s seemed to hover in place directly above me, stirring and brooding like nightmares
unwilling to let go.
Eight years later, I did have nightmares
of a mechanized racehorse suddenly veering toward me. I must have seen racetracks in Hollywood movies on TV.
A Day at the Races? I was among onlookers at the final turn. I was horrified,
the menacing horse even grinned, galloping with intent to kill me, its single purpose. I
stood helpless and immobilized, stranded in fear because it was going to grind me up
in tiny shards with its bleeding, bluish-gray succubus teeth.
Those planes overhead would loll perpetually
above me. I knew that to be true, even in my formative brain. Only in college did I learn that two B-29s were
responsible for two atomic bombs, one each dropping death on two Japanese cities. America:
evil-stake mean. The easy regurgitation of that history had not placed me on high moral
ground, supposed by Americans who privileged that obvious historic perception until
only their sham purity shone through as a hokey mantra. I stood beneath total mobilization
of air power with casually dressed non-combatants, mothers with bare legs and wobbly,
gooey children staring upward. I had no memory of my first vomit, but it could
have been then.
It had been a moment when awe and surprise
trumped perspicuity. No one was precocious back then. Or so it seemed. Or purported to be as in
our current era. Perhaps if Charles Bukowski had held my hand instead of my mother (quit visualizing
that), his insight that losers knew the true meaning of life while victors
had no clue would have sounded alarums throughout the land. Why had the U.S.A. evaporated
Nagaski? Why the super-abundance of cruelty? Why multiple genocide? Why the second
bomb and my concomitant need for the second memory?
Somewhere in my toddler biology, as if
that winged formation had given me a deep tissue massage, kneading the temporal lobe where the hippocampus
was located, I would always remember that day. For me, the whole point of life would
be authenticity, literally to make more of life. Whenever I struck out for abundance, more,
I plunged into the swamp like a flawed amphibian, "not waving but drowning"
as Stevie Smith wrote.
Those B-29s would never be an abstraction,
but lacerated like heavy industrial machinery into my mind.
They were not a stale, dead metaphor.
No. We walked back to our apartment, my mother trying to get me to scale the steps of the wooden staircase.
In the kitchen, she spooned me Gerber's as I sat in a highchair next to the refrigerator.
I would not eat, spitting it down my chin because I was not hungry. Those low-flying
bombers over my hometown wrecked my appetite. Much more to life than eating, I thought.
The world would always be about power and domination. How would I dare to
dethrone those two gigantic and dreadful kings? Or would I challenge them at all?
From my father's lap I saw through the
window a white house from which the orders for the second memory emanated. Not the White House, but the little
garden shed across the street and down the block. I heard many news broadcasts ceaselessly
mentioning the White House, and I took the newscasters to mean that cutesy white
house. Apparently, everything important in the world came from the tiny white outbuilding,
a minor citadel I saw whenever I sat wiggling around on Dad's lap in the evening.
I smelled Dad's tobacco effluvium and
nicotine breath, ugly and grim, many parsecs removed from the fragrance of Signor Giacomo Rappaccini's garden
in Hawthorne's story. Nevertheless, the white house and Dad's odor coalesced as
anecdote rather than art itself. A large brown radio near the comfy chair emitted male voices
talking about that sanctum sanctorum, the white shed. I only saw two wooden walls,
though I suspected it was larger by far than my view allowed. It had to be. Its emissaries
announced gravitas and tension every evening whenever I sat with Dad. A lot went on
inside that garden edifice.
White-thick dragon smoke blew from Dad's
mouth and nostrils, its smell a cue for listening to the radio and watching the white house. Perhaps someone
might walk out from the rear, then climbing up the flight of stairs to our apartment,
explaining every- thing. The flowers, the second memory, Dad's keen attention to those
strong unseen, erudite voices, that clean, well-maintained white house in which
I never inspected for myself---all would be connected if only a single representative
stepped out the backdoor and intoned all secrets to me. However, no grand unified theory
emerged. I had neither the ambition nor courage to seek out whoever lived inside the Skokie
Shortly, Dad would take me to their double
bed where I slept until they went to bed. Then, Dad moved me into the dining room where I slept on a folding
bed. Light, shadowy and pulsating, receded as he carried me from their bedroom
before I fell asleep anew. Dad never picked me up without my waking up, if only slightly.
I thoroughly enjoyed that crack between wakefulness and oblivion. It imparted
a thrill, something like a drug, where I left hard reality behind, joining the world of indeterminate
shapes and rearranged boundaries. The time it took traveling from their bed
to mine, from Dad's arms holding me to the moment he released me onto the dining room
bed: I wanted those seconds to stretch forever. I craved permanent amazement.
Once, during sleep, I rolled against the
wall and the bric-a-brac as well as the shelf crashed down upon me. I screamed immediately, swift reactions being
a major trait. Dad came almost as fast as my crying started. That was the first time
I felt someone caring for me. It established the first consciousness of my consciousness,
qualia as neuroscientists called it decades later. But from that crisis I would forever me
in need of a whole lot more vigilance than he could supply. No matter the haste and genuineness
in which he comforted me, I always felt it was not enough.
Lacking élan, it seemed stilted and left
behind a bad taste, like straight vermouth, that word from Wermut, German for wormwood. In later life I used to have
a cheap print of The Absinthe Drinkers by Degas tacked on my wall. Every time I looked
at it, I traveled through a Star Trek wormhole ( puns allowed only as atheists spoke
of God to explain why God was nonexistent ) and into my past, feeling cold and bitter.
He turned on the light, and I saw fear
in his eyes. And he sounded alarmed. Both emotions I absorbed, made them mine, never understanding that he
had reached out to protect me. Instead of seeing the heroic, something to be cherished,
it became an antithesis which I could never synthesize. Dialectics, whether Greek
to discover truth, or Kantian to experience the soul, Hegelian to reach higher truth,
the state, or Marxian dialectical materialism to understand conflict and contradictions:
these never penetrated my outer shell. My pod would remain intact until Kevin McCarthy,
of Invasion of the Body Snatchers fame, rose bodily from his grave.
I went to sleep immediately after Dad
cleared the debris from the bed. I translated deep affection into
fear and panic, love to be scorned in favor of the other two verities.
I woke up the next day feeling changed, a discoverer not of a leap
of faith and love but one who had encountered shame. I would not
look into his eyes before he left for work. The previous night's
falling clatter led me away from his natural glory. I had defiled
it with a painful feeling of unworthiness. The Dutch word was veeg,
I hate pedantry as much as you, but obsessions
cannot be overcome by rational thought and common sense. Get over
it, for chrissake. Pedagogue, a Greek word denoting a slave who
accompanied a child to school: a boy guide. Bilingual semantics
were included here to demonstrate worldliness, initiated by Night
of the Descending Bric-a-brac when I shunned love, acquired self-abomination
and began intellectually questioning everything about my dad. "A
true saint is a profound skeptic; a total disbeliever in human reason,"
wrote Henry Adams. I would become a philosopher of en lontananza---distance
and remoteness---skeptical forever and ever. Amen. Or I could have
been back then on the road to schlemiel-hood.
And that "passage" stuff about
primal events. Had not all children leaked shit from their noses
when leaving home for the first time? I had my fingers pried away
from the base of the radiator by my mother and a perplexed, edgy
cab driver so I would take his taxi to nursery school. Other kids
had similar anxieties, no? No. My resistance was fierce, indomitable,
and my four-year-old self wanted to kill that cabbie-father with
my bare hands, without moral restraint. Not a temper tantrum, but
a cri de coeur, defiance in the teeth of illegitimate authority.
Lucky that guy let Mom do most of the grunt work, pleading, coaxing,
and finally they dragged me down the steep stairs into the back
seat of the cab, with me wailing dung-tears all the way to school.
What I lacked was the repressed memory
of Bruce Banner, the Incredible Hulk, who in the future would knock
his father backwards, cracking his skull on the tombstone of Bruce's
dead mother, slain by his father. The hapless cabbie was a poor
stand-in for Daddy Dearest. ( DD ruled the throne in Skokie as Cardinal
Richelieu held sway over France during Queen Marie de Medici's reign.
But that was an analogy I would have to abandon, simply because
of its self-evident obscurity, though much fun nonetheless. )
The tombstone-death of Brian the Father
transfigured my life, recurring in vivid dreams of DD clunking his
melon hard on a hardwood floor, dying with streaming blood everywhere.
And that was before I even knew about Bruce Banner and the Hulk.
Flash-forwarding fourteen years, I had all essentials for my own
little Dien Bien Phu, the battle in which the Vietnamese defeated
the French, i.e., when it came my turn as a colonized son to finish
off Dad in another Chicago suburb not far from Skokie. Like the
Hulk, I wanted Mom for the alpha-parent. Bruce's father had been
an atomic physicist who gave his son Bruce a mutated intelligence
derived from Brian's exposure to gamma radiation. The comic book
mutation became my dad's real life occupation, accounting. How I
despised my father for his recondite skills as a number-fucker.
A lame high school teacher hypothetically
assigning a writing exercise: Describe Your Very First Day In School.
I would give her seven words: THAT'S WHEN I KNEW DAD MUST DIE!
That damn paper towel. Why had the teacher
done that to me? My social acquaintances had been limited to my
parents, and I had no peers. Perhaps the kids in our building all
sucked or they found my infantile patter boring and unproductive.
Maybe Dad protected me, like the weird looking girl sequestered
from the world that sweet and kind Gelsomina came across in La Strada.
I had no goofy index delineating someone who needed prophylactic
sheltering forever. I harbored an intuitive substandard ranking
When the harridan had had enough shush-shushing
me for nonstop talking, she pinned a paper towel around my face
and told me to BE QUIET. To this day I had always heard her say
in my carping inner monologue, SHUT UP, two little words approaching
profanity in the Sparling household. Taboo words, those. Where was
the ACLU when I needed them? The punk-ass fishwife had censored
me, tortured me for the sake of general classroom harmony. Law and
order: my ass. The obvious conclusion was that doing standup routines
would not be a career option. She had cut off my balls. If my parents
had aspirations for me going to Italy and becoming a WASP castrato,
my earnings to be sucked up as John Agar had stolen all of Shirley
Temple's child-loot, nursery school's "Mrs. Hoess" ( the
real life Mrs. Hoess lived with her husband at Auschwitz while he
murdered innocent Jews ) quelled that notion.
Hand-glassing. Had anyone ever done that?
Alone in the living room, I looked at the window pane, and wanted
to express the parallel. I thought that an exquisite gesture. Euclid's
Postulate 5 in Elements first defined it. Addison, Pope, Swift,
Browne, Shakespeare, and Locke used the word to express humanism.
My Puritan body would put it into practice. Praxis, not theory,
would distinguish me from everyone. I stood as far from for the
window as possible, then ran full speed, proposing to perfect the
Abrupt Stop Maneuver on the fly. Merging the palpable with the hidden,
I wanted both worlds joined at my palm. I knew in my heart I could
do it. How else to explore both sides of glassiness? Defying gravity,
overthrowing Newton, making myself known in perpetuity, having women
look fondly and adoring at me as a real player, an innovator, an
American Dreamer: I failed. I was stuck with the mundane.
My enthusiasm, its momentum, the glee
of freely giving myself up to the aeronautics of being, overwhelmed me. I tried to stop with the flat of my hand
halting at the pane's first touch. But I broke through, nearly falling out the second
floor, glass bursting and fragmenting like guerrilla landmines. I screamed and Dad came out
of nowhere. He asked what I was doing, breaking the window, hadn't I any sense. I had
only one cut on my palm. He bandaged it, and I simpered in a rocking chair. Shortly,
Mom gave me chocolate pudding to distract me from the would-be triumph turned
disaster. That was the first time I ever sulked.
I would not re-enact the source of my
failure for fifteen years. While drunk, on fraternity row, I felt the demiurge: to break a window of an opposing
frat house, a corrupted re-enactment of the Skokie episode. Again, I had no chance
for uplift or encouragement. My desire would not correlate with actuality. What
I sought was to be an eponymous creator: Sparlingean, an aspirer of parallel world convergence.
Howling Wolf had a line, "I wanted water, but she gave me gasoline."
I thirsted for recognition, but received only another cut hand. Growing up would
always be an illusion.