Chapter One: A One-Way Ticket on a Train Called the Crescent City
"I have something to tell you, Charlie..." This is my father talking, he's dying. "When your mother was giving birth to you, she had a bowel movement -- "
"She didn't mean to, Charlie."
My father and I had seen each other infrequently over the past several years, and now we were supposed to be enacting a solemn deathbed scene, my father having summoned me to a Charlottesville, Virginia, hospice where he was waiting for cancer to complete destiny.
"I wasn't around when your sisters were born," he said. "As I'm sure your mother told you, I never quite mastered the husband-father thing."
That's one way of putting it...my mother had put it many other ways over the years, in fact all my life she sang to me the litany of my father's sins: drunkard, gambler, womanizer, felon, heartbreaker. He left our family -- my mother, my three older sisters, and me -- when I was four years old and didn't reenter my life until almost a decade later when my mother, against her better judgment, allowed me to spend a summer in New Orleans where my father hustled a living with his half brother, James Joseph Pelikan. When I told my mother yesterday that Dad had called from a hospice and wanted me to come visit him before he died, she said it's probably a trick, he's not dying for real, he wants money, don't give him any, don't go see him, don't give him the satisfaction.
That single summer I was supposed to spend with my father in New Orleans stretched into three years, from when I was thirteen until just before I turned sixteen, years that broke my mother's heart and programmed me for life.
"From what I gather," the old man was saying, "a woman usually gets an enema before she goes in to give birth but you came on real quick and there wasn't time -- "
I told him I didn't want to hear it.
"I was out in the waiting room when a nurse asked if I wanted to see you get born...I figured, what the hell, in for a dime, in for a dollar. I arrived all suited up and masked just as your mother was bearing down to get you out and I guess she squeezed her bowels -- "
"Why are you telling me this?"
He held up a quaking hand, trying not to laugh. "The nurses are wiping away the shit while your mother is bearing down and shitting even more, which is the moment you choose to arrive, right in the middle of it all..." He laughs and loses his breath, then catches it again. "So that's what I wanted to tell you, you were born in shit and blood, it was a mess."
"I just wanted to tell you...to let you know I was there at the beginning."
"And also to say, life's tough...you're born in shit and -- "
When I suggested he leave it at that, the old man fixed me with a dull gaze. "So how's your business?"
"Good, knock on wood."
"Lunch boxes and Barbie dolls?"
"Collectibles, memorabilia..." He knew what my business was. For the past three years, since I turned thirty, I've been doing it full time, buying and selling toys that Baby Boomers played with as children, but I also deal in political memorabilia and occasionally rare books, old coins. I started out as a broker, purchasing items only when I knew I had a willing buyer. But I came across so many good deals from sellers desperate to unload collections (often a widow eager to sell her dead husband's "junk") that I leased a warehouse and began buying and storing items for eventual resell...this is either going to make a lot of money someday or lead to bankruptcy.
"You don't do PR anymore?" my father asked.
"Not for three years, Dad."
"All that stuff you did for that PR company, marketing and media, you told me, it's schmoozing...like you learned from me and your uncle James Joseph back when you lived in the Quarters."
"Yeah." My father's dying, I wasn't going to dispute what he should be taking credit for.
"That skinny little black-haired girl, you still shacking with her?"
"No, we broke up last -- "
"How many's that since college?"
"Serious ones you couldn't keep, yeah."
"If you can't make it work with women, Charlie, that's just one of the things you got to accept."
Where do parents get their ideas? I told him, "I parted on the best of terms with all my old girlfriends, in fact the ones who've gotten married have invited me to their weddings -- "
"You take it as a compliment...you're so safe that old girlfriends invite you to their weddings? Any of my old girlfriends, they didn't want me in the same state when they were getting married."
"All I'm saying, Dad -- "
"Is how tame you are..."
"Is how I'm not leaving behind a lot of bitterness and anger."
I shook my head.
"I'm not the man you were, Pop."
He stared at me and blinked, then said, "I'm laying here dying and you're insulting me?"
"And what did you mean, the man I was?"
I shrugged, but of course he must realize it's true...my father was in the past tense now.
"You're more like me than you want to admit," he said. "Marketing, schmoozing, trading, selling, working deals, hustling...the apple doesn't fall far from the tree."
Because he abandoned the family when I was four, as a child I had no distinctive memories of him, but when mother wasn't around, my sisters would tell stories of our father...how he could talk birds from trees and make everyone laugh, how people at a party waited upon his arrival like they were auditioning for The Iceman Cometh. When he was tapped out he'd bust open your piggy bank to steal the last quarter, but when he was flush he gave extravagant gifts all around, and people who knew him but didn't have to depend upon him loved our father dearly for his bonhomie. A thief and con artist, in spite of his moral corruption he was a physically beautiful man, according to my sisters and to photographs they had hidden away like contraband from our mother, who upon finding any lingering evidence of her ex-husband, would burn the item like it carried typhoid.
My father's good looks and high spirits and felonious nature were all still evident when I was a teenager and lived with him in New Orleans, but now, in this hospice room, he is desiccated and traumatized and it seems that the tubes in his arms and at his nose, instead of helping, must be vacuuming life from him. Mother would be pleased.
"I got a deathbed assignment for you," he announced.
Assignment...I remember that word from hanging around with my father and James Joseph, how they inclined to the dramatic and instead of asking me to run an errand or do a little job, they'd bring me in close and whisper about an assignment they had for me. Usually these assignments were mundane, run get a pack of cigarettes or go tell someone to be at a certain place come midnight...but occasionally James Joseph would offer something bizarre. One time he had me running around the French Quarter gathering up things I thought might be soothing to pygmies...who supposedly were being imported into this country as jockeys but ended up being so stricken by the crowds and shouts at the track that, between races, they needed to be kept in quiet rooms, surrounded by items they found soothing. Even at the time I knew it was ludicrous...but my uncle was such a magical man I would've gone to sea in a paper boat for him.
I guess this pygmy memory made me smile because suddenly my father was demanding what the hell I thought was so goddamn funny.
Funny was me bringing pygmy-soothing items to Pelikan who laid my treasures on the cypress bar of the joint where he worked, a place called Your Mother's, and questioned me carefully why I chose a piece of colored glass or red foil, please explain my pygmy-soothing philosophy. It was because of the close way he listened that I eventually came out of my shy-boy shell and flourished in the French Quarter.
"What?" my father was still demanding.
"Deathbed assignnment? I was just thinking how dramatic you and -- "
"I'm dying here!" he shouted. "For me, that's pretty goddamn dramatic!"
"Dramatic?" he grumbled. "Change places with me, see how dramatic you feel."
"You're right, I was out of line."
"What, I should just lay here and die politely, is that how they do it in the suburbs?"
He thought it was a sign of my milky nature that as a single man in my thirties I was living in a family-oriented suburb rather than downtown in some big city, preferably New Orleans, although New York or Chicago would've sufficed...places where a young man can grab the world by the ass and shake it, my father would say. Hoping to avoid his lecture about the soulless suburbs, I asked, What's the assignment?
"I got several, sit down."
I took a chair by his bed wondering if he was going to ask that I hold his hand as he spoke.
He didn't. "Your uncle, James Joseph, might be in trouble...over his head. It's this business with the Edessa. At least it started out as business, now it's -- "
"Edessa. It's famous, two thousand years old, made by Thracian goldsmiths who -- "
I laughed. "Thracians, huh?" This had all the marks of another farce, like the pygmy jockeys.
"If you're ignorant, don't be proud of it," he told me, "that's one of my dying philosophies you can have for free. Now I want you to go down to New Orleans and bring your uncle up here to me. If you make it before I croak, I'll be able to see him one last time, great. If I die before you get back, the two of you can go to my funeral together and make sure people pay attention."
"Why don't you just call him and tell him to come see you?"
"You know James Joseph, he won't leave New Orleans unless someone goes down there and gets him. What's he always say about New Orleans being his cradle and grave?"
"I'm not the man for the job."
"What's he always say, is what I asked you."
"He always says New Orleans was his cradle, New Orleans will be his coffin. And what I say, Dad, is I'm not the person to go down there and get James Joseph -- "
"Sure you are...in fact you're the only man for the job, the only person in the world James Joseph would leave New Orleans for."
"I'm not going to do it...ask me something else."
"Why, because he took that girl away from you, you still holding a grudge over that, how many years's it been?"
"He's my uncle, he should've -- "
"He couldn't've taken her away from you if she didn't want to be taken...he didn't knock her over the head, did he?"
"No, but that's not -- "
"He give her drugs, slip her a mickey?"
"No, although he's been known to -- "
"Then what'd he do to take her away from you...as opposed to you just lost her, huh?"
I didn't know the answer...maybe James Joseph whispered New Oy-yuns in her ear...and cried her to sleep with zydeco and woke her up with beignets, I don't know what the hell Pelikan did but I was in love with Amanda, deeply, dangerously in love with her, and I took Amanda down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, but she didn't come back with me. Amanda stayed with Pelikan. I haven't returned to the city since then (twelve years ago, when I was twenty-one) and haven't spoken with or forgiven my uncle.
My father was summarizing this trauma: "You bring a girl down to Mardi Gras when you're in college, James Joseph takes her to bed, the rest of your life is ruined...that your story?"
"I'm not going to talk about this."
"I never thought you'd grow up to be a sissy."
I looked away.
"When your sisters were visiting me the other day, one of them was wearing a cute blue dress with white piping and a matching jacket...I think it might fit you."
"Fuck you." Then immediately regretted it.
"Whoa, tough guy, huh...I'm laying here with tubes up my nose, out my dick, and suddenly you're a tough guy, huh?"
I wish. Life would be easier if I was tough like my father and his half brother, James Joseph, men who never fell in love, whose idea of romance was getting a blow job without having to pay for it, men who go hard eyed when a woman cries in their presence...meanwhile I regularly fall in love, break my heart, go to pieces. I think New Orleans did this to me, living there during my formative, puppy-love years. It tends to skew the rest of your life when at age fourteen or fifteen you're hanging out in French Quarter bars, protected as I was by the royal status of my uncle, eating dawn breakfasts with weary strippers who wanted me to rub their feet, getting oyster kisses from female bartenders. Then I left the French Quarter just before I was sixteen, my experiences there becoming personal myth and legend.
"You used to be such a happy kid," my father was saying, "how come you turned out so sour?"
"I had a root canal yesterday."
"And a smart-ass too. You know, your uncle could arrange for you to get rich."
"The only thing he's good at arranging is blow jobs for conventioneers." Arranging things is how my father's half brother made his way through life. When I lived in the French Quarter, Pelikan arranged the loss of my virginity and then sent women to me on a regular basis...which of course is one large reason I stayed there for three years, until my mother's almost daily admonishments and pleas by telephone and letter finally wore me down and I returned to the leafy suburbs of Connecticut as a jaded kid about to turn sixteen...convinced I'd already done and seen everything life had to offer. Maybe all sixteen-year-olds think that way, but after three years in the French Quarter with Pelikan, I was closer than most to being right about it.
"I'm worried about James Joseph," my father said. "People tell me he's become weird, maybe even mentally ill."
"Yeah, how could anyone tell?"
My father laughed and coughed, then suddenly his eyes went wide and he grabbed his side and seemed about to scream. "I coughed loose one of my tubes." I went looking for nurses.
While waiting in the hall as they worked on him, I offered a silent prayer: Please God don't ever let me be the author of that statement: I coughed loose one of my tubes.
After he was put back together, the nurses said I could have another ten minutes with him, then I should leave.
"When you get down to New Orleans," he said right away, speaking hoarsely and allowing no opportunity for either of us to mention what had just happened, "look up Three Jacks On The Floor before you go into the Quarter, he'll tell you what condition your uncle is in, if it's safe to go see him."
"Yeah, there's a lot of stuff going on, Three Jacks will fill you in."
"Okay, I'll do it."
He stared at me for a long time. "I'm dying, you're lying."
I didn't deny either.
"I can't believe you're not going to do this thing for your dying father."
I really did have a root canal done the day before...and now it's throbbing. "All right, Pop, the nurses said I got to go...I'll come see you again tomorrow."
"I'll be added to Pelikan's list soon."
"He keeps a list of all the people he's ever known who've died, he takes it out occasionally and goes through the list, saying each person's name and remembering something good about that person. You never knew he kept a list?"
"Soon I'll be on his list...and I have to tell you, Charlie, it's a comfort knowing that after I'm dead, someone will occasionally speak my name and say good things."
"Dad, you're busting my balls here."
He closed his eyes and began fooling around, pawing the air with one hand, speaking like he was already a ghost. "Charles, Charles...my dear son, Charles, go to New Orleans, get rich...eat a muffuletta for me, drink a Dixie beer, and remember me to Herald Square."
"That's New York."
He opened his eye and tried for a sly grin...which came across as death's grimace.
"Don't you want to go to New Orleans and get rich, Charlie?"
"What's this about getting rich, how's Pelikan going to do that?"
"Go down there and find out."
"We'll see." Now I was sounding like the parent, putting off a persistent child.
He gave me a dirty look. "One last favor? Go to my funeral and if you catch anyone checking his watch or yawning or talking business or comparing gas mileages or anything that's not about me...give 'em dirty looks. Man, I can't stand that. What's a funeral last, an hour or so? For that lousy hour it seems to me you should concentrate on the business at hand and not be making lunch plans. So that's what I'm asking of you, come to my funeral and scowl at the clock-watchers."
"You got it."
"One other thing."
He didn't speak for a moment, then shrugged. "A man's dying, he tries to set things right. I talked to your sisters, they forgive me for being a lousy father to them or no father at all, they always have forgiven me. And they all turned out just fine, careers and marriages, great kids. I haven't called your mother because I knew she wouldn't forgive me, which is fine too. That leaves you. I don't know how much responsibility I owe for you not being a very happy man at age thirty-three when you should have the world by its ass -- "
"No, listen to me. I should've taken better care of you when you were living with me, shouldn't have let you run wild, shouldn't have let you spend so much time with James Joseph. But what's done is done, now, if you can find it in your heart, I'd like you to forgive me."
"Everything I just said. Jesus Christ, I'm dying here and you're still not listening to me? For not being a good father, not taking better care of you."
"I forgive you."
He looked at me for a long time, then said, "You're lying again."
"Like I said before, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree...but you know what, Charlie, I'm glad you're tough hearted. It'll hold you in good stead."
"Tough hearted? Dad, you have no idea how soft I am."
This seemed to alarm him and he asked what I meant.
"Nothing, I'll come see you tomorrow."
His outstretched hand held an envelope. When I took it, he said, "Don't come back tomorrow."
"It really burns me."
"People not paying attention at a funeral. A death should mean something. I should have you say Kaddish."
"Not that I expect you to even remember your old man, much less do anything in my honor, every day for eleven months, that's a laugh...an hour after I'm dead you'll be drinking cocktails from fancy-stemmed glasses and I'll become some story you tell every few years when you get in your cups after a dinner party."
"I have no idea what you're talking about."
" 'My father, the colorful character from New Orleans.' Go on, get the hell out of here, don't come back."
I hesitated. Was this the last time I'd see him alive?
He made it easy. "I said get the hell out of here, Charlie...leave me to die, huh?"
I left and didn't stop until I was away from the hospice in a taxi, where I opened the envelope containing $900 and a one-way ticket on a train called the Crescent City.
Copyright © 1999 by David Lozell Martin