You Must Draw a Long Bead to Shoot a Fish
I’ve a letter demanding an answer. It’s from my friend Sue, who has gone home to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania to watch her father die. He is, or maybe now was, a self-made millionaire, a maverick Mennonite, a builder of hard, bony houses, and a shooter of animals on land and in water, which is saying something, since you must draw a long bead to shoot a fish. Her father is, or maybe now was, writes Sue, “guns and sweat and beer.”
When the ten-years dying of his cancer began to accelerate last spring, he called Sue and her sister to tell them that when the time came, they would find his body in the hollow in which he lived, his head gone on to Heaven by way of his shotgun. He is, writes Sue (or now was), a man to be feared, not for violence toward others — none of that — but for competence plus disdain plus the dumb beast arrogance of any pretty man who can make women swoon. These virtues made him a twice-abandoned husband and an ignorer of daughters. The daughters have nonetheless returned to the house he built to ease his dying.
His oldest daughter, my friend Sue, is a scratch over five feet tall, her body taut and muscled and disciplined in youth to the easy use of a hammer and a gun and alcohol. I imagine she could handle all three at the same time. She cooks, too, and gardens, and sews, and if she thinks a man’s brilliant she writes him a check from her meager salary – she’s a college bureaucrat – and asks for nothing in return. She learned early on that men take, and take, and take, until they die.
When she was a kid she got out of Lancaster pretty fast and married I don’t know how many times, taking from each husband a name she added to her own like a pearl on a necklace she never wears: I knew her months before I learned how many names she currently owns (five). She is shy of 40, a woman with a past and now yet another husband, plus another lover for good measure. She goes by only her latest surname, borrowed from a neurasthenic German architect, a pale, lovely guy who lives separately from her and stops by from time to time for conversation or for food. This is fair, she says, because he was a finalist in a very important architectural competition; he needs his space.
Sue’s space, meanwhile, is in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where she is the white girl on a street of poor Puerto Ricans. She lives in a tired old flop of a building, the back wall of which bows outwards like the hips of a cello. The German told me that soon it will curl, like a wave falling, and bring the back of the building crashing down.
I call Sue a redhead, but she says she’s blonde. Her face is red, white, and blue: lipstick, pale, freckled skin, and blue eyes. She has bouncy toes. She was born to box. You can see this even when she wears her emerald-green, ankle-length, beltless tunic, which would be a burqua were it not for the fact that it’s just about see-through. No naughty details to report, just the silhouette of a body given by God for the sake of combat. She is, in fact, a black belt, and also a surfer, and a rock climber, but what she’d really like to be is a poet. She writes poems and then she hides them. Or she loses them, or gets the computer or the briefcase or the trunk they’re in stolen – whichever doesn’t matter, just so long as nobody reads them. Still, I have read a few. They’re good. What would happen if she published one?
I think I understand her fear. I’m from a town not much bigger than Sue’s, and every writer who has grown up in a small and rough place and then left it behind knows that the first published word is a declaration of independence, as irrevocable as it is thrilling. “Putting on airs” is an announcement of singular voice. Small places tell stories with “we,” the sound of a first person plural that is royal only in the fealty it demands of all within its tiny fiefdom.
Consider the version of her own childhood that Sue can hear for the cost of a Bud at any bar within an easy drive of her father’s hand-built castle, from men who worked for him or drank with him or lost women to him: “Beer was on tap in our fridge, pigs were roasted, firewood split, flannels worn,” she writes. “This is the myth, still believed and retold.” She hears it repeated like a prayer, on bar stools and by her father’s deathbed. “They” – the “we” of Sue’s origins – “come from miles around to bear gifts and to pay homage, to this wisest of all men, self-made, prosperous, most capable man.”
But, she asks, “how much does he really know when you take him from His Kingdom?” That this will not happen does not prevent her from dreaming of her father dislocated, of her own dislocation transposed onto his “Marlboro-man,” cancer-ridden frame.
Fat chance. Dislocation is a kind of doubling, the self where it is recalling the self where it used to be, neither self certain of where it currently belongs. Dislocation is a kind of splitting, a double-consciousness. One half smiles, curtsies, says “thank you” to those who hurt it. The other half rages, says “fuck you,” plots vengeance, or escape, or, most romantically, redemption: the New Testament ideal, all that is split – knowledge and wisdom, body and mind, humanity and the divine – made whole.
But redemption is not a real option, and dislocation is a half-life. All of us who embrace it persuade ourselves that it is chosen, that it is a strategy. If we are in academe we call this idea a “site of resistance.” If we are in the workaday world we call this half-assed approach “getting by.”
The term “half-life,” of course, refers most accurately not to a strategy, nor a plan. It is a simple, stark description of radioactive decay.
“Beer was on tap in our fridge, pigs were roasted.” Now the old man is dying and all the lives Sue has constructed to leverage herself away from him — Sue in California, Sue in Berlin, Sue in Manhattan; Sue-as-surfer, Sue-as-poet, Sue-as-not-redneck-royalty – have collapsed back into the hollow from whence she came.
The myth of the hollow has its dark side. True to fairytale tradition, it’s feminine: Sue’s mother was the “local town whore,” she writes, who bore her father two daughters and then left them. Goodbye. She was replaced by a wicked stepmother who dunked Sue’s head in a toilet, held it there, beat her bloody. Sue’s father didn’t notice. Wicked stepmom left, too, taking half of Sue’s father’s self-made fortune with her. Goodbye. There was one more attempt at a mother, another ex-Mennonite, but Sue’s father kept this woman at a distance – bought her a house of her own miles away – and Sue barely knows her. She came around to help him die, but then she saw his wasted body in the bed they had occasionally shared and she packed quickly. Goodbye.
Such practice, Sue had.
There is a story there, or least an Oprah discussion, but Sue won’t indulge in such tales more fully told than in her letters. Her mother left her father, and her father left the Mennonite church, and Sue left the hollow, but that does not give her the authority to break free from anything. Thinking of her father’s wavering on the question of suicide – not because of fear, but because his respect for the God he does not believe in restrains him — she writes, “ask God’s blessing or thumb your nose at him, he still cuts the thread around here.”
“You won’t want to hear it,” I write Sue in an email promising her this essay in lieu of a proper letter, “but all this dying is giving you some fine sentences. ‘Ask god’s blessing or thumb your nose at him, he still cuts the thread around here’ is just one of them. I’m entitled to make such seemingly ghoulish remarks because I’ve made stories from my own dead mother.”
She died of breast cancer when she was 48 and I was 16; years later I published an essay about her called “The Many Times My Mother Died,” which began – glibly or brutally or honestly, depending on your imagination and your mother’s health – with a sentence given to me by the Jewish novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet: “Everybody has a mother, and they all die.”
I wrote the first draft of that essay when I was 21. It began with something pretty about “memory” and continued on through medical reports, my mother’s diary entries, my own recollections of her dying. Thereafter, I slept with sympathetic readers for the next several years. That essay also won me a literary agent, who in turn made for me a writing career. Thanks, Mom.
This was all before Melvin’s observation of suffering’s simplicity, an essential distillation of fact from “memory” which made of the essay a blunt object no longer easily turned toward the service of my various ambitions.
Still, we must work with what we have. Sue has a dying father; I have her letters. “I hear crickets,” she writes, “an airplane, the wind in the acres of leaves, almost like the sound of rain, the brusque shift of this little shack on its supports.” She is in a tree house built by her father on a section of land overlooking the Susquehanna. It’s a complete outfit – bed, stove, TV, even, everything but a phone, and it’s there that Sue retreats to write her letters.
She might miss his dying.
“A turkey vulture just soared so nearby I could see his eye” – Sue would wince if she knew I was reproducing her unintentional rhyme – “and hear his feathers rustle like a tafeta skirt.”
I’d like to hear that myself, and so here I am, telling Sue. Save that sound, Sue, consider it a gift of your father’s dying. He seems like the kind of man who might appreciate the thought that even in death he can be productive. Use all the parts, Sue. There will be nothing to spare. That’s the trouble with a half-lives, biographies split between one story and another, identities bisected. It’s tempting to declare of yourself that you’re one thing or another – your father’s daughter or an independent woman, a redneck up a tree or a poet from Brooklyn, a dusty corner of someone else’s myth or free of the past, down on the ground or high in the branches – but you can’t.
Despite the infinite decay suggested by the term “half-life,” there is never enough to go around.
My mother was a hillbilly from Tennessee by way of Indiana, my father was and is a Jew from Schenectady. I’m not sure I’d have known I’d be forever split between gentile and Jew had they not divorced when I was two. Thereafter, I was a Jew on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and every other weekend, and my mother’s the rest of the week. Jew days in my father’s apartment, across the river from my mother’s house in Scotia, meant Spaghettios, kosher salami on Triscuits, and, on holidays, chopped liver at my Aunt Roslyn’s. It seems to me now that the rest of the time we went to the movies, although I can only remember two, Excalibur and Hair.
My goyishe mother also took us to the movies. She found a job baking cookies and brownies for a concession stand at our town’s movie theater, rehabilitated by a band of hippies who didn’t want to peddle corporate candy. My fourth summer, while my mother baked, I played in the theater. On the sunniest of days, I sat in the dark eating warm cookies and watching reverently as the hippies threaded the two movies they owned through the projector, over and over: Woody Allen’s Sleeper and Harold & Maude. This accounts for my Jewish education.
I was a pale child. Nobody cut my hair, so I went off to kindergarten like a little chubby Ramone, hidden behind a thick brown curtain that hung down to my eyes in front and my shoulders in back. The other kids asked me if I was a boy or a girl. This struck me as reductive. I refused to answer. Around December, I tried to explain my complicated-yet-clearly-superior holiday situation. While the other kids would receive presents on Christmas only, I’d be getting gifts for nine days (Hannukah plus December 25th), although, given the Tuesday/Thursday schedule, several of those days would have to be crammed into a few evenings, between Spaghettios and R-rated movies.
This was a lot for my classmates to absorb. My hair was unkempt and my clothes were dirty (I insisted on sleeping in them) and my mother sometimes dropped me off at school in a belching, rusty blue Plymouth that looked like a rotten blueberry. So, obviously, I was poor, maybe even poorer than them. But nine days of presents? Was I a liar? Were my parents thieves?
My parents provided another conceptual dilemma. There were a few kids whose fathers had simply left, but at the time, not a single one of my 25 classmates had parents who split them, mothers on Monday with whom they watched “Little House on the Prairie” and fathers on Tuesday with whom they watched “The Paper Chase.”
Plus, I was “Jewish.”
Or so I claimed. For the fall of my first year of schooling this ancestry provided me with minor celebrity, until it came time for Christmas vacation. On one of the last days of school that December, Mrs. Augusta asked a student to volunteer to explain Christmas. A girl named Heather shot her hand up and told us about the baby Jesus and Santa Claus while the rest of us stewed, since this was an answer we all knew, and we wanted Mrs. Augusta to love us. When she asked if anyone could explain the Jewish holiday of Hannukah, I raised my hand and she smiled, since the question, of course, had been meant for me alone. I stood. “On Hannukah,” I declared, “I get extra presents.”
Mrs. Augusta kept smiling. Why? she asked.
“Yes,” she said, “and what does that mean?”
“What does that mean?”
I had never heard of “Judaism.”
My classmates, until this day free of that ancient sentiment which, I’d later learn, had prompted whispers and unhappiness when my Jew-father had moved onto Washington Road, began to giggle.
Mrs. Augusta tried to help. “What else do you do on Hannukah?” she asked.
I beamed. I knew this one: “I eat gelt and chopped liver!”
Giggles grew into guffaws, as kids parroted me, special emphasis on “gelt.” It was a stupid word they had never heard before. “Gelt!” “Gult!” “Ga!”
Oh, Mrs. Augusta! She tried.
“Now, now. Doesn’t anyone have a question for Jeffrey?” Silence. “About being Jewish?”
Bob Hunt raised his hand. This would not be good. He had actually flunked kindergarten, so this was his second time through, and he was older, dangerous. For Halloween, he’d been Gene Simmons, of KISS. If only I had known then what I know now about the American Jewish tradition of “Who’s a Jew?”, a campy little game that is, in truth, a self-defense training maneuver intended to prepare you for encounters with goyish hostiles such as Bob Hunt. Who’s a Jew? Gene Simmons, for one. Han Solo, Fonzie, yer mother.
Bob’s question: “Yo. Sharlet. What’s ‘gelt’?”
“Gold coins?” I tried.
“Jews eat gold?” (And thus the endless cycle of anti-Semitism keeps on turning.)
“I mean, chocolate?”
Mrs. Augusta frowned. She had expected Macabees and dreidels. Instead she was getting gelt, which she had never heard of. I was making a mockery of “Judaism.” “Which is it?” she asked. “Chocolate or gold? It has to be one or the other, Jeffrey. It can’t be both, can it?”
How to say that it can?
Like this: “It… it comes in a golden net,” I said.
“I think he means candy,” Mrs. Augusta fake-whispered to the class, winning their laughter.
I sat down. Mrs. Augusta decided to smooth things over with a song, “Jingle Bells.”
Bob Hunt leaned toward me, fake-whispered just like our teacher: “Candy-ass.”
I didn’t know what this meant, but it was clearly two things at once, and not good at all. Thereafter, I resolved to be halfsies. I could not be fully both Jeffrey and Jew, chocolate and gold. If anyone asked, I decided, I was half-Jewish, on my father’s side, and he didn’t live with us anymore.
Sue’s father died a few weeks before Christmas. We drove down to Lancaster County for the memorial, a double pig roast in a hunting club perched above the hollow, a ragged American flag limp above the mud and bullet-riddled refrigerators and dead cars sleeping in the fields. Sue wore black pants and a black shirt and as a belt one of the ties her father rarely ever tied. There were men in camouflage and women in tight things and one old grey beard in a dirty red Santa suit he wears all year round, an excuse to pinch the cheeks, lower, of girls who’ve been naughty. That included Sue and the ex-Mennonite, Katy, who was for all purposes the grieving widow. They didn’t mind, not really. It was a day for drinking – beer at the memorial, and more beer, plus whiskey, at the house afterward. The house Sue’s dad built is made of flat stones — carried one by one up from the stream by little kid Sue and her sister — mortared into a hall big as Valhalla, capped with the great wooden beams of a barn he scavenged, adorned with the skins of deer he killed. Their hooves are now coat racks and door handles. He was a man who used all the parts.
We gathered round a giant wood stove in the basement, shoveling in logs and gulping down beer and caw-cawing like crows about Sue’s dad’s adventures. It wasn’t one of those crazy-funny-grief kind of evenings, just a good and drunken one. We had left over several aluminum vats of pork and roasted potatoes, and somewhere in the evening a proposal was floated — perhaps by the man who’d inherited the title of “Mayor of the Hollow” from Sue’s father, or maybe from the man whose daughter had moved to the big city to become a roller derby champion — for a roast potato battle, shirts and skins. Ladies topless, of course. A few potatoes splatted but the blouses stayed on. The men made the snow yellow. Citified, I went looking for a bathroom. Along the way I found Sue’s dad’s bedroom, now Sue’s; on the nightstand there was a copy of The Brothers Karamazov, an 800-page novel about a disastrous father and his broken children.
“The Brothers Karamazov?” I said to Sue when I returned. “Are you trying to kill yourself?”
“Beats Lear,” she said. She’d read that while she sat next to him, “140 pounds of man,” she’d written, “about to be dust.”
“Cordelia’s my sister’s middle name,” I said. Lear’s good daughter.
“Insurance,” Sue nodded. She understood why a parent might try to name a child into loving devotion. “My father could have used some.” She thought she’d failed him. After a vigil four months long, Sue’s father croaked his last in the five minutes she stepped out of his hospital room to get a soda. The old man didn’t even thank her. Never told her he loved her. Goodbye.
I read Karamazov after my mom died, too, only I was sixteen, and I was so damn dumb I thought it was a Jewish novel. My Jew dad took my sister and me on a grief trip, a long, grey boat ride to Nova Scotia, which to us was nowhere, which was why we went there. I sat on the deck of the boat spotting cold grey North Atlantic dolphins and trying to read the book, which is really fucking long, fingering the pages I’d put behind me on the assumption that consumption counted as comprehension and that comprehension led to transformation. I thought Dostoyevsky, a Russian, must be like Torah, filled with secrets about what’s right and what’s wrong and how to be a whole person. A total Jew.
With my mother gone, what were the options? I took a look at my father, with whom I now lived, with whom I now ate not Spaghettios every night but whatever I felt like ordering at the Brandywine Diner, or the Olympic, or Son of the Olympic, and I thought, Here is a man, and now I’m one, too. A big, grown-up Jew. Watching death and eating at diners were my rites of passage, my bar mitzvah.
I don’t count Dostoyevsky because I figured out halfway to Nova Scotia that a Russian surname does not a Jew make, nossir, not by a long shot. Raised by goyishe wolves and a hippie Christian mom, even I could tell, eventually, that all this crap about the smell or lack thereof attending to the body of a dead monk did not make for a Jewish novel. I was confused. I’d seen Fiddler, the movie, danced to it in my socks, knew the words to “If I Were a Rich Man,” understood the movie’s essential lesson: There are two kinds of people in Russia, Cossacks and Jews. Translated to America, there was Bob Hunt and me. So who the fuck was weird Alyosha Karamazov, this shmuck who didn’t seem to understand that sometimes, death really is the end?
“What gives?” I asked my father, but he wasn’t talking at the time and he didn’t answer. “What gives?” I asked my sister, but she was stuck on the idea that Madame Bovary was the solution to a dead mother, to being split in half. If only my father had possessed the good sense to book Bob Hunt a passage to Nova Scotia with us, I could have asked him. “Bob, what gives? This book, it weighs like two pounds and it’s boring, and what good is it going to do me now? My mom’s dead and my dad’s a Jew and look, man, I’ve got to pick a side and I thought this would do the job, but it won’t, it doesn’t seem to mean anything. It’s not even Jewish to begin with.”
“I know it’s not,” sing-songs Bob, at eighteen tall and feral, topped by a mop of the Gene Simmons Jew-locks he’d always dreamed of, “you are.”
What a liar.
“Fuck Hunt,” as the half-Jew and his band of weak and/or incomplete comrades said when we were thirteen.
“Douche” was another insult we liked. Also, “Pussy.” These were not bold vulgarities, but whispered truths. My Masada-dad had told me to fight if anybody crossed me, but what did he know? It was him who’d crossed me. I was a pale, chubby, half-Jew kid from half a family, son of the “kike-dyke” of Washington Road, as Bob Hunt christened my mother, with double inaccuracy. But he had caught the essence of the thing: Even dumb punk kids understand that it’s all about where you came from.
Europe’s most organized people, the Germans, grasped this, and so do the Jews. It’s both glib and brutal to point out that Germany and Israel are the only two nations with blood laws, and it’s downright ugly to note that Israel’s nonexistence notwithstanding, the Jews beat the Germans to the concept by half a millennium. Yes, only half; the matrilineal rule really came into being during the Middle Ages, when Christians raping Jews was such a common occurrence that Jews started counting bloodlines through mothers instead of fathers, lest they be cursed by generations of halfsies unto erasure.
Once I went up to a table of young Lubavitchers on the hunt for strayed Jews and told them I was interested. Not that I was really a Jew, I said, not that I went to temple, you understand, not that I really knew anything about it-
“You’re a Jew,” said the middle one, a tall redhead with a face full of pimples crammed between his beard and his black hat.
“Great,” I said. “What do I do now?”
“You’ll come to Shabbes dinner this Friday,” Red told me, “and here’s some literature.” He handed me a pile of pamphlets as thick as a book. Then one of his companions, a very short, narrow-shouldered man, tugged on Red’s sleeve and rattled off a few sentences of Yiddish. Red nodded judiciously and passed the message onto the third man, who nodded and drew a box from beneath the table. From the box he took two, smaller boxes, with black leather straps dangling from them. These he proposed to tie onto me.
I’d seen them before. Tfellin, or phylacteries. You bind one to your arm, one to your forehead. They contain scripture that, as far as I knew at the time, were supposed to osmose into your bloodstream. It seemed an easy way to learn, so I stuck out my right arm. The Lubavitchers stopped and glanced at one another. Wrong arm. I stuck out my left. “I was never bar mitzvah,” I explained. They took it in stride, with raised eyebrows but firm purpose. The leather straps wound around my arm. “I was raised by my mother,” I went on, “and she isn’t – wasn’t — Jewish.”
The Lubavitchers froze.
“Is something wrong?” I asked.
Red and Number 3 stared at one another, then turned to Narrow-Shoulders, who shrugged what little he had. “What is there to do?” he said. Number 3 started unwinding the straps.
“Am I done?” I asked. “That’s it?”
“I’m sorry,” said Red, turning away. “We cannot help you after all. Perhaps a Reform rabbi might, could, I don’t know…”
Make me a Jew in Red’s eyes? I don’t think so, no more than he could unwind his leather fast enough to erase the pointele yid — my fragment of a Jewish soul — that had provoked the binding. Identity is a con like that, one eye winks, then the other. It’s not just blood, either.
Look at my friend Sue, a pale wisp of a woman after the long months of her father’s dying, a whiskey in one hand and a beer in the other, a cigarette between her lips and a hurled roast potato skidding past her into the snow.
She’s standing in front of the house her father built with the stones she brought him, amongst the men and women she grew up with and the men and women she found elsewhere. Tomorrow, we’ll all leave. It’ll be Sue and the woodstove and the deerskins. Two mothers gone and one dad dead and the only one who ever told Sue she loved her was the stepmom who hanged her, yes, actually hanged her, in the garage. She still sends cards. She even showed up at the memorial. “What a hoot,” says Sue.
Sue can’t stay in this house — neither she nor Dostoyevsky belong here — and she has no particular place to go. She’s quit her job in the city and given away her apartment to someone who can deal with its collapse and written her German architect husband a fat check from her inheritance – goodbye and good luck – and tucked away all her secret poems. She’s ready to move. She’s in her late thirties, freed of her latest marriage, childless, jobless, only her memory of the hollow to sustain her. That, and her ex-Mennonite father’s industrious millions. Or, million, singular. Or, at least a couple hundred thousand. The myth may have been bigger than the reality, but there’s enough to keep her in Triscuits and Spaghettios for a long while. Her plan, in the making since the old man began his dying, is “travel,” itself a glamorous destination, so unlike the stones from the stream across the road with which her father built the bony house she won’t live in. She won’t come back to the hollow, she won’t come back to the city, and who knows when I’ll see her again?
More importantly, what book will she take to start off her grief vacation? Not Karamazov. Enough already, we both agree. To hell with the fathers and the saints and all the other myths of purity. It’s not that Sue hates the hollow (she loves it) or that I’m not a Jew (I am, a yid-and-a-half divided by three quarters), it’s just that we’re bound to stories that don’t so much resolve as unravel, not unlike this one. The dead leave without saying goodbye, the past fails to provide an adequate explanation, and you can go home again but why the hell would you want to? The house Sue’s dad built looks like it will stand forever, but the memory of it is already breaking down. This is, I suspect, as it should be. Half-life, nuclear decay, all the little parts of a thing moving on and becoming something other. Were it not so, what would we build from?
I have the perfect traveling book for Sue. Before her dad died, she wrote that she wanted My Antonia, by Willa Cather, a great Jewish novel. Of course, I wouldn’t think this was a very Jewish book if it wasn’t for Colin Powell. Normally, I’m not one to admire generals, but Colin Powell is an exception. Forget politics: What counts is that he speaks Yiddish and his favorite novel is My Antonia.
When Colin Powell was a kid, growing up in Harlem, a West Indian and thus not quite an American, he got a job working in a Jewish furniture store, which is where he learned the Yiddish. The owners taught him so he could listen in on the calculations of young Jewish couples figuring what they could spend, figuring the black boy couldn’t understand them. Thus, the general spake Jewish.
As for My Antonia?
Sue offers a theory: “I wanted to read the Pavel and Peter story again,” she writes, “about throwing the bride and the groom to the dogs.” No reason, she wrote; “Just because.”
Sue’s dad once shot a crow from his front porch and grilled it up and ate it, just because he wanted to know if the caw-caws tasted as bad as they sound. Apparently, they do. They’re not good eating, but that’s identity for you: greasy, without much meat on its bones, fit for the dogs.
Sue, the book is in the mail. Use all the parts; get lost; goodbye.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).