THE LONELY VOICE #7, The Rumpus Short Story Column: My Son the Murderer

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In honor of Governor Mark Sanford and Michael Jackson’s (bless his Indiana soul) favorite holiday, today’s Lonely Voice is devoted to dads, interesting, fascinating, All-American dads…

Rewind to last Sunday. My brother calls me. “Did you talk to Dad?”

“No.”

“You better call him.”

“Did you?”

“Got it over early.”

“How’d it go?”

“Fine. He was eating a grapefruit.”

“Doing that slurping thing?”

“Yes.”

“What’d you talk about?”

“Nixon.”

“Why?”

“We always talk about Nixon.”

“You do?”

“Don’t you? What do you talk to him about if you don’t talk about Nixon?”

I never said my family was normal. Is yours? Later that day I’m driving in the mountains. The phone keeps coming in and out of range. A good time to call to Chicago but I don’t — yet. Fathers and sons. They see themselves in us and we run from the them in us. I speak generally, or for myself, or something. My point, I think, is that it’s an intrinsic thing. You can’t flee from what — or who — you lug around. But somehow we never seem to really believe this. We believe we can overcome our fathers, don’t we? I’m talking about love here. If there wasn’t an absurd overbearing love sagging us down, we might have a chance at escaping…Dads! Golf clubs and catch! Stocks and bonds and divorce! Expectation and failure and disappointment and fear — of what? Fear that they won’t live forever.  Now there’s the rub. They die on us, isn’t this how the story goes, and they leave us with the all the love-weighted guilt a body can handle.

Here at the Lonely Voice we don’t like to make grand pronouncements but I would say that number one Father’s Day novel would have to be The Brothers Karamazov.   A sampling:

The Son:  Shameless imposter!

The Father: He says that to his father! His father!

The Son: Why is such a man alive?

The Father: Do you hear, you monks, do you hear the parricide!

And in the realm of the story, our winner is perhaps a lesser-known piece of work by Bernard Malamud, “My Son the Murderer.”  To get to the bottom of fathers and sons, Dostoevsky needs 700 pages.  Malamud can name that tune in 8. And the bizarre thing is that there’s more genuine aching love between son and father in the American’s story than in the Russian’s novel. All I have to do is think about the story and I become vulnerable to soul-crushing remorse.  All right, I love you Dad. I do, I do, I swear —

“Hi Dad.  I’m driving in the mountains and so my cell reception isn’t great but I wanted to say Happy — ”

“Who is speaking?”

“Dmitri Karamazov.”

“Oh, I remember you. Kind of short like your father. Brown hair. Flatish feet. Those are from your mother.”

“Tell me about Richard Nixon.”

“What? I can’t hear you.”

“Richard Nixon! Tell me about Richard — ”

“Oh, Nixon! There was a man, the real deal.  Christ, they don’t make them like him anymore. They say Reagan saved us from the Bolsheviks. Poppycock! Reagan wasn’t fit to lick Nixon’s shoelaces. It was Nixon who out foxed them. Nixon said China. Goddamn, I’ll go to China myself. I always wanted to go to China. I hear China’s nice! Big country! And I hear China got the potential to have more cash than God! And look at us now. If it wasn’t for China we’d all be eating oatmeal for dinner and all you spoiled brats sitting in front of your computers would have to get real jobs and actually make something. Think about that, eh? Pretty scary.  Thank Dick Nixon. But the Republican Party? Today? Compared to Tricky Dick they’re a bunch of pansy ass moralists. Last time around, even I voted for the African American.”

deknatel_10_dd287_eOkay my father did not say African American. He said something else, employing a Yiddish term I won’t repeat on a family/ porn friendly website. He did though say poppycock. (To my knowledge, my father does not read the Rumpus but Steve tells me that a lot of other people are starting to, that it’s becoming a real phenomena on the internet, so I guess that it is possible that someday my father might learn how to use the computer and read this. Therefore, I pause to say that the characters and events in this column are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.)

But legal lingo won’t protect this son. Or any other. Fiction or not, lying embellishers intent on humiliating our flesh and blood or not, don’t we become, eventually, one way or another, our fathers’ executioners?

In “My Son the Murderer,” the son, Harry, threatens to kill his father for opening his mail:

If you do this again don’t be surprised if I kill you. I’m sick of you spying on me.

Harry, you are talking to your father.

In Malamud’s story, to spy is to love. Leo, the father, spies on Harry because he can’t figure out what’s wrong with him.  His boy is in pain and he can’t do a damn thing about it. “My Son the Murderer” is set in Brooklyn during the Viet Nam War. Harry has recently graduated from college. He mopes around the house. He won’t get a job. He retreats from his parents. Every day he waits for his letter from the draft board. He watches the news on TV.

It’s a big burning war on a small screen. It rains bombs and the flames roar higher. Sometimes I lean over and touch the war with the flat of my hand. I wait for my hand to die.

My son with the dead hand.

But Harry’s anguish goes beyond, far beyond, the war itself. His sorrow is as profound as it is inexplicable. He spends hours and hours hunkered in his room, his father breathing outside the door, listening to him, trying to understand what’s so wrong with Harry. And did you notice what happened in the above paragraph? That beautiful switch in point of view from Harry to Leo? My son with the dead hand. Leo picks up where Harry leaves off. He’s listening and watching and trying to know his son so intensely that his thoughts bang off Harry’s throughout the story. Malamud creates a sense of simultaneity, a technical feat of the sort I tried to describe in John Edgar Wideman’s “Welcome” a few weeks ago. I’m attracted to stories that attempt to replicate the unique way families communicate and don’t communicate. And here in “My Son the Murderer,” not only do the voices of the characters run together but also — crucially — all that is unsaid.

At one point, Harry does the best he can to explain himself to his baffled parents. “So why do you feel bad?” his mother asks.  Harry replies, “I feel what I feel. I feel what is.”  And so Leo has no choice. He worries.  And he tells Harry not to worry. The father will carry the worry for the son, but what self-respecting son would accept this? Grubby hands off my pain, Pop.

…But if the worry is about someone else, that’s the worst kind. That’s the real worry because if he won’t tell you, you can’t get inside of the other person and find out why. You don’t know where’s the switch to turn it off.

Harry don’t worry so much about the war.

Please don’t tell me what to worry about or what not to worry about.

Harry your father loves you. When you were a little boy, every night when I came home you used to run to me. I picked you up and lifted you to the ceiling. You liked to touch it with your small hand.

I don’t want to hear about that anymore. It’s the very thing I don’t want to hear. I don’t want to hear about when I was a child.

Harry, we live like strangers. All I’m saying is I remember better days. I remember when we weren’t afraid to show we loved each other.

He says nothing.

Let me cook you an egg.

My god that egg.  The whole of Leo and Harry’s relationship is in that egg.  All the bungled love of every father in the world is in that egg — offered at exactly the wrong time.

An egg is the last thing in the world I want.

Of course, Harry, we understand. Go on with your moping and your sorrow and your carrying the weight of an entire ill-conceived war on your young shoulders.  Ignore your father’s love, shun it, ridicule it, stomp on it, Harry. Do your part in this age-old drama, this great and endless dance of the fathers and the sons. Leave the house, run away from your father and his god-awful disgusting love. I won’t tell you what happens at the end of “My Son the Murderer.” Like all stories that mean a lot to me, there is no resolution, no solace — only heartbreak. But in this heartbreak occurs that rare thing, an enduring human connection, no matter how fractured.  Suffice to say that it takes place at Coney Island, on the beach and involves an old man, a father, chasing a hat that has blown off his head.  And a son, a terribly, inexplicably sad and lonely son, standing on the edge of the shoreline, the ocean rolling over his shoes.

*****

Paintings by Drake Deknatel 1943-2005


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →