Gian Lorenzo Bernini, The Rape of Proserpina, 1621-22, White marble, 255 cm, Galleria Borghese, Rome
The house on Superior Street had three bedrooms. Mine was the one on the left as you came up the stairs. My father’s was straight ahead, and Alec’s—formerly Stanley’s—was on the right. Early in the morning I’d look in at him. He always hung his pants from the top of the always open closet door, and his fat wallet bulged in his back pocket. He slept on his stomach, his hands up under the pillow. Usually one bare, smelly foot stuck out from under the covers.
Sometimes on Sunday afternoons when he was still terribly hung over, he’d call me from his bedroom, tell me to go to the bathroom and get the rubbing alcohol. He ordered me to give him a nice long back and leg massage. Maybe he thought the alcohol would seep through his skin and get into his blood stream and bring back the buzz he loved so much.
His skin and muscles were loose and flaccid and mushy, and there was just something off-kilter about me, a boy, rubbing my father down. But I knew doing what he wanted would be easier than absorbing still more of his hateful glares.
But it wasn’t always bad. Chester would sometimes be pleasant, and funny—and even fatherly. For instance in the summer 1951 he called my Aunt one afternoon and told her to get Johnny ready, cuz he was gonna take the kid to the movies. Yeah. “Singin’ In The Rain,” with Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, out at the Wellman Theater on West Liberty Street in Girard, northwest of Brier Hill.
As he drove, he turned the radio up and sang along with Bing Crosby’s version of “Harbor Lights.” I winced, because he—not Crosby, of course—was horribly off tune, but Chester sang loudly, confidently, as if he sounded just perfectly great. When it was finally over, thank God, he said that song always reminded him of when he was in the Army in Hawaii. Schofield Barracks.
He bought the tickets and as we walked to the counter to get popcorn and candy, I looked at the movie’s poster in one of the lobby’s glass cases. The title annoyed me. “Singin’,” with an apostrophe replacing the final “g.” I imagined those movie public relations people dropped the “g” so it would appeal to ordinary folks, as opposed to smart-assed college professors. Making a big deal about spelling and grammar is just a lot of intellectual bullshit, you know?
Right off the bat Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor did a dance routine that was impossibly complex and difficult, but they had big smiles plastered on their faces, as if it all was easy. Kelly’s was the whitest, broadest, most sincere and heart-warming smile you ever saw in your whole damned life. They must have trained a spotlight to make those teeth shine and glisten so brilliantly. I wondered if Kelly’s charm was just for the camera, just a stage thing. Maybe in real life he was an asshole who made people miserable.
For the first half hour it was an interesting movie, but then it dragged on and on and on, and I wished I could either leave or fall asleep. On the other hand, there I was, sitting with my FATHER, and not once had he flashed me one of those glares. Maybe Gene Kelly’s joyful rain-spattered celebration of falling in love reminded him of how he must have felt once. Back in the old days.
On the drive back toward Brier Hill he pulled into a drive-in and a cute girl in roller skates brought us greasy cheeseburgers and salty fries with Heinz ketchup and big glasses of Coca Cola. I loved it. And I knew I could really get to like being with this guy.
We sat on the grassy slope at the front of the house, and he told me a few things about Hawaii. Nothing really personal, or significant, but general stuff like the impressive statue of golden-robed King Kamehameha the Great, at Ali iolani Hale, in Honolulu. And fabulous, famous Diamond Head at the south shore, Waikiki, which he said was a three-buck, 35 mile cab ride from Schofield Barracks. “You bust your ass all week on duty, and they give you the weekends off. Ever hear the saying, paint the town red? That’s what we did all right.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“The fuckin’ Army,” he said. “Everything by the numbers. Hey, everybody hated KP and tried to get out of it, but I goddamned loved it, and even volunteered. They thought I was nuts. But I could sit under a big palm tree and peel potatoes, and I could listen to my short wave radio playing Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.”
I asked him if he ever ran into that guy James Jones, who wrote FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, which was about soldiers at Schofield Barracks, and which the Vindicator the other day said was on the best seller list, and had won the National Book Award.
“No,” he said, “I never heard of the guy, and I haven’t read the book. Hey, I was THERE. I don’t have to read about it.”
“Well, then, maybe you should write your own book and make a lot of money!”
“Yeah, maybe I should.”
That summer evening he was actually being my father. He seemed to be warming to me. Amazing! Stupendous! Maybe over time he’ll warm to me more. Not get so annoyed with everything I said and did. Maybe.
I don’t know how he arrived at the subject, it just came out of him, appropos of nothing.
“You know those pulp paper magazines that have filthy pictures of naked women?”
I said, yes, I knew of them.
“They’re disgusting trash.”
I agreed, they were.
“And then there are those statues in art museums. You know, of naked men and women.”
I nodded eagerly. Yes, I knew exactly where he was going. The magazines were trash because they degraded women, made them look like whores, whereas the nude statues by Bernini and Michaelangelo and Donatello celebrated the beauty of the human body…
But no, that’s not where he was going.
“Hey, they’re ALL filth!” he sneered. “Disgusting filth. But the fuckin' intellectuals call it ART. What a crock of shit.”
At that moment I knew we’d never fully connect. Ever. We were light years apart, and always would be. I didn’t bother to argue alleged filth vs. art, because it was clear he’d made up his mind on the issue long before I was born.