Let me tell you about my dream, my father said. Two black men walk into a bar and the rosy-faced, white barkeep says we don’t serve niggers in here and one of the men points to the other and says but he’s the president and the barkeep says that’s his problem. So the president walks over and gives the barkeep a box and says these are Chilmark chocolates and the barkeep says thank you and reaches over to shake the president’s hand. The president jumps back, says what’s that? And the barkeep says it’s a hand buzzer, a gag, get used to it, asshole.
And that was your dream? I asked him.
As best I can remember. And I’ve written something for you. He looked at my face. Not to you, but for you. It’s sort of something you would write, if you wrote. Here it is:
And yet I continue to live. That was how my father put it, sitting in his wheelchair, the one he could not move around by himself, his right arm useless in his lap, his left nearly so, held up slightly just under his sternum, his new black Velcro-shut shoes uneven on the metal rests, this side of his face, the side near me, the left side, sagging visibly, his voice somewhere between his throat and the back of his tongue. And yet I continue to live. I had suggested that the salt my mother was sprinkling liberally over his food might not be the best thing for his high blood pressure, even though at his age, in his condition, who could really deny the man the simple pleasure of too much salt, but my mother snapped at me, saying, I’ve been taking care of him for a long time. My first thought was how true that was in so many ways, good and bad, and that was when my father spoke, making a joke and a comment and reminding me that in the vessel that looked something like him there was still the man I knew. And yet I continue to live, the right side of his mouth turning up in as much of a smile as his nerve-starved face would allow and I laughed with him. My mother had not heard what he had said and even if she had it would have been lost on her, but she reacted to our laughter, and that reaction was what it would have been if she had heard his comment and had understood, it would have made no difference, none at all, as she became angry, insecure and jealous that we were sharing anything. My father was depressed, it took no genius to see that, sitting there all day long in that room in what they call assisted living, pressing his button and waiting for the orderly to come hook him up to a lift to take him to the toilet, pressing his button because the nurses were late getting him ready for bed and he was falling asleep in his chair, pressing his button because there was nothing else to do but press the damn button. I was depressed too, seeing him that way, then leaving to live my own life far away, knowing his condition, knowing his sadness, knowing his boredom, and depressed because I could for days on end live my life without feeling the horror of his daily existence. What I didn’t know was how he could continue to live, sitting there day after day, seeming so weak, feeling so little through his body and feeling so much through his mind, his hand shaking, a crooked finger in the air, when he was trying to tell me something, I could even see it when we were on the phone. How, like this, at seventy-nine could he still be alive? Then during one of my useless visits, visits that I made because I felt I ought to pay, visits I made because I loved him, though I always seemed to make him sadder, he said, his crooked finger resting peacefully on the back of his right hand, What do you think of this? His voice was clearer than it had been in years, the words finding the full theater of his mouth, his eyes sharp on me. I think it’s awful, I told him, because he asked for very little and deserved the truth. You should love your father more, I think he said, the voice again retreating. I asked if he thought I didn’t visit enough and he shook his head, a gesture I didn’t know how to read, leaving me wondering if he meant that I did not visit enough or that I did. Do you want me to visit more? I asked and he looked at me with the eyes I had always known and even though now they were milky and red and weak, they became his again and he said, Just one more time.
I flew away from Philadelphia feeling that I understood all too well and trying not to understand anything, trying not to see anything. There was an animated in-flight movie that I watched without sound and I was struck by just how realistic the whole thing was, the talking animals and stretched faces seem to make perfect sense. I missed my daughter and was glad to be flying home, found some light in the thought that she would be peacefully sleeping when I walked into the house and that I would peek into her room and see her face in the glow of her night-light. And I resolved that I would never put her in the position that I was now in, that I would not let my body fail me to the point that I could not control my own time and space and direction. It had all sneaked up on my father and on me as well, thinking, he and my brother and I, that he would turn a corner and be new in some way, but that corner turned out to be a steep hill and gravity turned out to be as inevitable as we all know it is. And as quickly as the thought of my daughter had brought me back to some happiness, my love for her returned me to a rather selfish consideration of my own future, however cloaked in that fake veil of concern for what she would face, and finally back to the matter at hand, the question put to me, the request made by my father. But how?
You don’t live in Philadelphia, I told him. Dad, we’re both here in California.
It’s called fiction, son. This is the story you would be writing if you were a fiction writer.
You’re damn right it’s depressing. You’re not very bright, are you?
What am I supposed to do with this?
If you kill me, he said, if you kill me, then I will be sad, yes, confused, no doubt, maybe even angry, if you kill me and if you don’t, if you don’t kill me, then I will feel nothing, feel nothing forever, he said to me, and that is a long time, while he held his book that his failed vision would not allow him to read, not the Bible or any bible, as he would never, in the light or in the dark, actually or pretend to read the Bible or any bible, but he held in his lap, useless in his lap, his soiled Principia Mathematica and he spoke of Russell glowingly and admitted he knew little about Whitehead, except that his name was unfortunate. I can’t read this anymore, he said, this book, because my eyes are useless. I hate simile, my father said, have always hated them, even the good ones and there are no good ones, except maybe this one. His useless eyes narrowed and he said, I sit here, useless, like a bad simile, then he said, perhaps I should say any simile, given what I just said, the adjective bad being superfluous. If you kill me, if you do, he said, then I won’t tell, if you don’t tell me that I am telling my story, is what he said. I won’t tell the world that I have no son if you make it so that you have no father, because I cannot walk or even tremble, he said, Russell was a good man, was good to Wittgenstein even though he was a pompous asshole. Well, here’s a game for Ludwig, Pin the Tail on the Narrator and he began with no pause, except for that silence that must exist before one begins, and he said to do away with he said and began with I was born when I was twenty-three or maybe he was born when he was twenty-three, a year much better than the twenty-second during which he tried to kill himself with paracetamol, his liver would never recover completely, his father and he unable to agree, to come together, harmonize or square, his father, doctor father, Doctor Father, unable to fathom why in nineteen-sixty his son would rather fill his head with logic than go to medical school because how would he support himself and a family and then at twenty-three and in medical school he was happy, and no one understood why, even if he had told them they would not have understood, happy because he finally understood that the Ontological Argument was sound and yet he knew with all certainty, beyond all doubt that there was not and had never been any god. If there was no god and the argument for his existence was sound, then language was a great failure or deceiver or bad toy or good toy, that it could be wound up or twisted and if he knew that, that it could not be trusted, then he knew where to put it, how to view it, that it was there for his pleasure, that it was not pernicious, for how could a thing so twisted finally mean anything, that it was there for his amusement and that all instances of its employ were for amusement. Therefore, the lovely therefore, as the argument carried, not a good argument like the Ontological Argument, perhaps not even sound or valid, that he could become a doctor, be a husband, be a father and rest, if not easy, but rest knowing that it was all a game, not some silly language game, but a walking, running, tackling, blocking, dodging, hitting, hiding, sliding, diving game where everybody dies before they find out it’s just a game. But he was twenty-three when he understood what he would for the rest of his life refer to as the truth, even with his patients and his colleagues, according to the truth, he would say, according to the truth you have six months to live, according to the truth your wife will leave you, the truth never unraveled, clarified, solved or explained, never defined, never deciphered or illuminated, but the truth, it coming to this, that according to the truth A=A is not the same thing as A is A, and may A have mercy upon your pathetic, wretched, tortured, immortal soul, according to the truth.
Why don’t you get along with your brother?
Well, he left his first wife for an Italian woman. But it wasn’t what you think. Aside from the hair, of which she had an abundance, she looked like Benito Mussolini. I have trouble with him because he then left her for a French woman who looked like the Italian actress Monica Vitti.
You found this morally objectionable.
Not at all. It made me jealous.
And that’s okay.
According to the truth, it’s just fine. You know what the problem with life is? It’s that we can write our own stories, but not other people’s. Take you, for example. I have a wholly different story charted for you.
Of course you do.
There’s no need to get an attitude. In fact, I’ll decide that you don’t have one and so it will be. How’s that
Makes things easier.
That’s more like it.
I should never have become a doctor.
You’re not a doctor.
What’s that supposed to mean?
I’m an old man. You tell me. Regardless of what you’ve heard, wisdom does not come with age. Wisdom comes from periods of excessive sexual activity.
I think I knew that.
That’s the you I like. The funny you. Not the you who mopes around wondering how you’re going to take care of the sad business at hand. What I wouldn’t give to get laid.
I know my pecker’s dead. So am I. But I don’t know that, I guess. Tell me, tell me, tell me true, tell me I’m dead, all frozen and blue. Tell me I’m rigid, stiff as a board, and playing croquet on the lawn with the lord. You see I don’t even capitalize god when I’m speaking.
Did you just make that up?
What the fuck does that matter? If you must know, it’s from Hamlet, act two-hundred, scene fifty-nine.
You see I have this one finger that works, a shutter finger and so I want a camera, he said to me. Both of his hands, as a matter of fact, worked, along with much of him. I want to start taking pictures he said and I told him that was a great idea and so I bought him a camera, a digital Nikon as all cameras are digital now, he making a mock complaint about wanting film, I want the chemicals and all, he said, but finally made nothing of it, holding the camera in his lap, failing to look through the eye piece or at the little screen and snapped away. I’m chronicling all that I, rather my lap sees, indiscriminate and unjudging, no framing, no pictorial editorializing, just mere reception of, if not reality, then the constituent elements of what we call or choose to call the world. It’s a camera, Dad, I said to him and he nodded, turning the thing over and over as if he’d never seen one before, tilting it up to photograph whatever he thought occupied my space in his so-called world. The physics are still basically the same, he said, computers notwithstanding. Light in, image captured upside down.
Every painting has its own lawfulness, its own logic, its own rules. It could have been that I established such logic for my canvases, but I admit that I really do not know. To even consider this away from any singular painting is the cruelty of abstraction, a cutting into the flesh of reality, for as I abstract toward some understanding I necessarily lean toward some example and as I so lean the whole foundation of my argument topples over under the weight of the sheer inadequacy of my example. No one thing can represent all things. Not even within a class it turns out. This may or may not be true. The hardest thing for me was the judgment that there was no need for any one of my paintings to exist, their own inherent rules of logic notwithstanding. I would argue to myself that my expression was but a small participation in the human attempt to move beyond the base and vulgar, purely animal (as if that were a bad thing) and short existence on this planet. And I would do this all the while attempting to commune with, rejoin with, celebrate the base, vulgar and pure animal part of myself. Just as modernism’s logical conclusion has to be socialism while ironically relying on and feeding on the construction of an elite class, so my paintings and the art of my time could only pretend to culminate in anarchy while, strangely not ironically, finding it impossible to exist without markets and well-defined cliques and order. I have finally circled about, hovered, loitered enough to recognize that my only criterion for the worth of a painting is whether I like looking at it. I no longer say that this painting is good or bad, it might be sentimental, it might be bright, it might be muddy, it might be a cliché, but it is neither good nor bad. Do I like looking at it? That is all I ask? That is all I now answer. I walk the hills behind my house happy because I have learned this. I learned it as I turned my life into a camera obscura, putting a pinhole in one side of my world, letting the scene outside come to me upside down but with accurate perspective. I was feeling rather smug thinking this and enjoying a cup of tea when I saw a head bounce by a window of my studio. I stepped outside.
There was a young woman standing in my drive. She was of medium height, a little heavy, her reddish hair in short curls. “Gregory Lang?”
“My name is Meg Caro,” she said. She stepped forward to shake my hand.
“What can I do for you?”
“You’re the painter, right?”
“I’m a painter, too. At least I want to be. I want to be your apprentice.” She stood straighter.
“This is not the middle ages,” I said.
“Your intern then.”
“I’ve never seen your work. I don’t know you. You might be dangerous. For all you know, I’m dangerous. I don’t take on apprentices or interns.”
“I have some photographs of my paintings,” she said.
“I don’t care. I’m flattered, but I don’t care.”
“Please, look at them.”
I looked down the dirt lane and wished that my wife would drive in, but she wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours.
“What will it hurt to look?” she asked.“You say your name is Meg?”
“How old are you, Meg Caro?”
“Twenty two,” she said.
“That’s old enough to know better that visit a strange man all alone.”
“Where are you from, Meg Caro?”
“Let me see the pictures.”
She opened her backpack and handed me a ring binder.
I opened it, but couldn’t see. “I’ll have to get my glasses,” I said.
“They’re on your head.”
“Thanks.” I looked at the pictures of her paintings. “These are pretty good.”
“I studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.”
“That should help me like the paintings more?”
“No, I just thought.”
I’d stepped on her a bit, so I said, “I like the work. Of course, you can tell only so much from photos.” The paintings were young, not uninteresting and nice enough to look at. “Photos are so flat.”
“Oh, I know,” she said.
I studied her broad face for a second. “Come in here,” I said. I led her into my studio. “See that big painting on the wall.” I had a ten by twelve foot canvas nailed up. “Tell me what you think?”
“I like parts it,” she said. “It reminds me of another of your paintings. That really big yellow one in Philadelphia. Somehow this seems like two paintings.”
I stood next to her and stared at the work.
“The under painting seems somehow warmer on the left side. Is there some blue under there? Maybe some Indian yellow.“ She stepped back, leaned back. Her movements were confident, perhaps a little cocky.
“Would you like some tea?”
I went to the sink and put more water in my little battered electric pot. I glanced back to see that the woman was walking around the room, looking at drawings and notes and canvases.
“What is the painting about?”
I studied her young face and looked at the canvas until she turned to view it again with me. “This painting is about blue and yellow. Sometimes yellow and blue. Do you think it’s about more than that?”
She didn’t say anything.
“Are you always so neat?” she asked.
“I didn’t know I was. I’d ask you what kind of tea you’d like, but I have only one kind.”
“Are your parents still in Miami?” I asked.
“My mother is.”
“Does she know you’re here?”
“I’m twenty-two years old.”
I poured water into a mug and dropped in a bag, handed it to her. She took it and blew on it. She told me she really loved my work. I thanked her and together we looked at what was on my walls and floor.
“Like I said, I don’t have a need for an intern.”
“You wouldn’t have to pay me,” she said.
“I didn’t even think of that,” I told her. “There’s really nothing around here for you to help me with.”
“I just want to be around you while you work.”
“As flattering as that is, I find it a little weird.” I looked at her and became nervous, if not a little frightened. “Maybe you should leave now.”
“Okay. I didn’t mean to come off as a stalker.”
“All right, I believe you, but you still have to leave.”
“Will you think about it, though?” She put her mug on the table and started to the door.
“Thanks for stopping by,” I said. I walked out behind her and made sure she walked down the drive and past the house. She wasn’t the first person to make the walk from the road. Usually it was men looking for work and I gave it to them when there was something to do, but a young woman coming up seemed different. I could imagine my wife coming home to find that I had taken on an apprentice. I would tell Claire about her when she came up and she would listen and I would tell her that I had been uncomfortable and she would tell me I was employing a double standard, that I would not have had the same reaction if she had been he. I would agree with her and then say the only true thing left to say, “Nonetheless.”
Is this supposed to be my story? The story I’m supposed to write or would write if I were a writer?
My, but you are dumb.
What is this? Who is Gregory Lang?
You’re Gregory Lang. This is what you would write or should write if you wrote. Like I said.
I don’t write. Who is Meg Caro?
I imagine she is the daughter you don’t know you have.
I see. Why don’t you just admit that you’re working again?
I don’t know. Maybe I am working again? Tell everybody I’m workin’ again. Doctor said it’ll kill me, but he didn’t say when. Lord, have mercy, I’m workin’ again. If I could, I’d get up and do a little gig to that. I love that line: Doctor said it’ll kill me, but he didn’t say when. Did you know that a camera is just a box with a little hole in it?
As a matter of fact, I did know that.
Dad, why all this writing for me. Why don’t you write it yourself?
I’m an eighty-year old man. What do I have to say those assholes out there? And people my age, well all they read is prescription labels and the obituaries.
That’s not quite true.
Nor is it quite false. Why do they print the obits so small?
Listen, you’ve got a sharp, a strong mind.
Try wrapping your fist around that in the morning.
Dad, you realize that I’m dead.
Yes, son, I do. But I wasn’t aware that you knew it.
# # #
Percival Everett is the author of more than twenty books. He has received the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the PEN Center USA Award for Fiction. He teaches at the University of Southern California and lives outside Los Angeles. His most recent novel is Percival Everett By Virgil Russell
“Confluence” was originally published in How To Read Music (TLR Spring 2010)