I visit Chester and his mommie again in the early 70s. Their house is one of those two-level ranch-style things in the suburb of Austintown. Thick pale carpets. Lots of junky bric-a-brack and curtains. An overall hot and stuffy vulgarity, an overwhelming middle-class tastelessness. As soon as I arrive Chester starts on the beer. Warm beer, which he gets from the multitude of six-packs stacked up in the basement, a reserve he maintains just in case they reinstate Prohibition. It reminds me of the beer and wine he kept in a cabinet at his tuxedo rental, which he thought was secret.
He tells me that he makes good money working for Master’s, his former competitor. I wonder: So what happened to his own business? Did it go under? I don’t ask.
Anne interrupts. “Oh, come on, Chet, don’t say you make good money because you don’t.”
Ouch! At that moment I actually feel sorry for him, having thus been humiliated, cut off at the knees by his wife in front of his own son.
But he doesn’t seem to notice.
“So how much do you make at that fancy New York job of yours?” he asks.
“I do all right.”
“Come on,” he says. “Break my heart. Tell me how much you make. I wanna know.”
I remain silent.
He decides we must go OUT, just him and me. Anne objects, but he throws her a threatening glare, as if to say, Watch your mouth, bitch! You might get hurt! So we go to the Avalon bar. He starts throwing them back, shots and beers. I pace myself, determined to keep my wits. What do we talk about? It wasn’t about my exclusive interview with jazz musician Miles Davis, or my job as copywriter for Doubleday Publishers on Park Avenue, or my associate editorship of Olin Magazine, and my assignments all over the US, Mexico, Canada, and Europe, because he doesn’t want to imagine me running the rapids on the Colorado through Grand Canyon, or my talking with moon-walking astronauts down in Houston, or my recent photographic tour of Pisa, Florence and Rome. Oh, no. Forget about it.
Maybe we talk about my wife and daughter. But no, he wouldn’t do that because he’d then be obliged to explain why he has not yet set eyes upon his granddaughter, Lara, now two years old. And he certainly doesn’t want to know how many times Betty, my mother, his ex-wife, has come to New York to visit her grandchild.
Pretty soon he’s slurring his words, and squinting, like he’s in a mighty struggle with deep, deep, troubling thoughts, a burning cigarette in one hand, his glass in the other.
“Bartender. HEY, over here! Is he fuckin’ deaf? Bring us another round. Okay?”
Just before he passes out, I help him into the car, drive back to his house. Anne comes to the door.
“Oh, my God!” she says. “Look what you’ve done! What in hell is WRONG with you?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You got him drunk.”
“I didn’t twist his arm, it was HIS idea.”
She won’t let go of it. Keeps harping on my unspeakable, horrible, disloyal act. “How could you do this to your own FATHER? It’s so disrespectful!”
Okay, that’s it. I’ve heard enough of her bullshit.
“Who in hell do you think you’re talking to?” I say. “I’m not a criminal, and I’m not a child. So back the hell off.”
Whoa! She’s literally stunned. Apparently no one has ever dared to stand up to her, she’s more accustomed to pushing people around, humiliating them. We stare at each other for a moment, then I turn, head for my rental car. I don’t even say goodbye. Why should I?
I was under Chester’s thumb beginning in 1945 when at three I met him for the first time. I endured 12 years with him, and when I was 17 in 1959 I left the madness to join the Air Force. So except for a number of visits like the last one, I was out of his reach for nearly 50 years.
He married Anne in 1966 and stayed with her until he died. Four decades of a life I know absolutely nothing about. Except that despite his chronic alcoholism he was deeply loved by every single member of his new family. At least that’s what they keep saying.
“Tell me, John,” still another shrink asked me, “When was the last time your father abused you?”
I had to tell him it was decades ago. And he smiled and said, “Holy cow. The way you carry on, it was only yesterday.”
Good point. My childhood by then was ancient history, and as a grown man I should have gotten over it. But I hadn’t. Those memories pursued me like a pack of wild, starving dogs. I kept running, they kept chasing.