Excerpt from 'The Black Veil'
The Black VeilA Memoir with Digressions
By Rick Moody
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2002
Children, with bright faces, tript merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait ...
Fathers make fetishes of their cars. Mustang convertibles, sport-utility vehicles, Jaguars, Corvettes (fathers receding into their middle years), Audis, Saabs, the restored Nash Rambler, the MG, the Ferrari, Lexus, Lotus, Lincoln Town Car; there are souped-up motorcycles and fathers are out in the driveway, on their backs, fumbling for wrenches.
I'm concerned here with patrimony, with all the characteristics attendant thereupon, with self and the vain reiteration of self implicit in fathers and sons, with national pride, national psychology, national tradition, with inheritance, with all the eccentricities that run in families, so you will have no choice but to get to know my dad (to the almost complete exclusion of my mom, unfortunately), as you will also have to wrestle with certain long-standing rules of dads. My particular dad, Hiram Frederick Moody Jr., didn't appear in my life until I was nine. He was in residence before that, sure, throughout the early years, but in a way more capricious than fatherly. He made his way around the premises. He had thinning dark hair and glasses (worn with embarrassment since early childhood). He was slim, His most frequent expression was one of furrowed skepticism. He dressed casually but never sloppily. My dad wore Top-Siders and cable-knit sweaters and tweed jackets with patches on the elbows. And tortoiseshell glasses. He was, compared to me, very large. He was a behemoth. My childhood interest in dinosaurs, in the T. rex or the pterodactyl, was really a metaphorical interest in dads. He dispensed incontrovertible orders. We executed these orders. But my father was also a cipher to me, a mystery, an enigma - at least until my parents were divorced in 1970. This was all in Connecticut, in the suburbs. In Darien, mainly. Sun-dappled lawns, sprinklers, station wagons. My parents had to go as far as Mexico to secure their divorce. My mom had to go. That I hadn't been aware of any difficulties between them says more about what awareness is to a child than it says about their difficulties. My parents didn't talk to each other very often; they would pass through the kitchen or the front hall or on the way to the bar in the den and acknowledge each other in a miserly way. They didn't yell or bicker. They mostly agreed in public. But they managed to avoid being in a room at the same time, and we (my brother and sister and I) were rarely with the two of them in the family constellation, that I remember, except occasionally on our sailboat. I have the pictures of their wedding to attest to the fact that they were married at the same location and moment, but that is the only evidence. Dad turned up late, most nights, after my bedtime. Or, if earlier, he secluded himself in front of the network news, in a recliner, with a cocktail (vodka martini very dry with twist) and dry-roasted peanuts. Occasionally, I fitted myself into a small crevice beside him on the vinyl recliner, my head upon his shoulder, and watched the news with him, not understanding a word - Vietnamese body counts, riots at the convention - not talking to my dad, as my dad didn't talk to me. I absorbed the warmth of his sweaters and enjoyed the irrefutability of the head of household. When he took us out on weekends to play games, to engage in athletic contests, to school us in competition, he seemed distracted. Especially when baseball was involved. Baseball was too slow. Baseball was a game of the past, a nineteenth-century game, an Indian game. A game from the old America. The pitcher is the only important player, he observed. Why was anyone interested in it? My father watched football on the television in the den; he watched the New York Giants and grumbled at their performances, at Frank Gilford. We tried to excel at football as a result, even my sister, because we wanted to rouse him from distraction. Out on the lawn. In the space between crab apple trees and dogwoods. The neighbors came and played too. Somebody's feelings were always hurt. The rules had not been effectively stated! Someone was cheating! I often tried to declaim facts about football in order to impress my dad, like that the Los Angeles Rams were very good, but my heart was not in it. I wasn't even in possession of genuine facts.
Fathers use acronyms. Fathers refold maps; fathers like to appear as though they have infallible knowledge of direct routes between any two points, Fathers are purveyors of ethics.
My brother is hard of hearing on one side because of chicken pox contracted as an infant. Because of his deafness, he never much trafficked in single words. There was no dada or mama or doggy or kitty period in his language development. When he learned to speak at all - in sentences - it was late, and he had a lot to say. Before language, he had a sentient glow but was unnaturally silent. Of course, silence is an incredibly powerful conversational gambit. He understood everything but reserved judgment. One day he was sequestered in the nursery, in his crib, and I was visiting him there while he passed time coloring, scribbling webs of color onto a pad in the tones of the old Crayola box. As I watched and offered commentary, he impulsively selected a certain yellow crayon and began to draw on the wall of his room. An eggshell wall, or perhaps a very pale linen-hued wall, Flat finish. Soon Dwight had made some compelling galaxies there. On the wall. The Crab Nebula. The Milky Way. Here were some really large-scale wall murals of a color-field sort. Like Motherwells or Rothkos. I watched this. It was fascinating because I knew intuitively that these designs did not belong on the wall of his room, and yet when no retribution was forthcoming (Mom was down the hall), I began to think that maybe I was wrong, maybe there were no parental regulations on the subject of coloring on the wall. Maybe everything was permitted. Maybe pandemonium was allowed. Why hadn't we ever thought of this before? The wall offered many inviting planes onto which to fashion our creations! It's a family trait to court trouble with authority, to incline toward trouble as though trouble were the sweetest grog. We were just coming into our inheritance.
My brother, however, having made a yellow scribble almost a crib length in diameter on the wall of his nursery, having filled in this scribble with swooping arcs of yellow sun-worshipping icons, petroglyphs, became bored with the exercise. He went back to his pad or went back to playing with his mostly decayed blanket, his transitional object, which accompanied all his peregrinations. I was not bored, however. I was just getting interested. I climbed up into the crib, stepped around my brother's diapered body, chose a purple crayon (the opposite of yellow), and made a small palm-sized quadrilateral smudge on the wall. The two drawings, it seemed to me, went well together. They were complementary.
Then my mother happened on the action. She darkened the threshold at the very moment when I, with crayon poised, was beginning to decorate my brother's decoration. This linen-colored paint job just was not right. It needed a little zing. A little something. Dwight was busy with some incredibly adorable three-year-old business that had nothing to do with defacing the house. Smiling his unforgettable smile, his snake charmer's smile. I was drawing on his wall. To my mother, fresh from another responsibility, it must have appeared as though I had myself made enormous yellow orbits on the wall and had now, in purple, begun to set off this yellow with some of my ideas about color harmony. There was a long, dramatic silence in which the enormity of the tableau sunk in. My mother slowly, incrementally, took note. Perhaps she fell tiredly against the door frame. But soon she seemed to regain her verve. In order to shout. She was not a person who expressed her rage easily (she was small and soft-spoken), but in this instance she made an indelible impact with words that had often been used before but until now only preemptively: Wait till your father gets home.
My parents were not committed to corporal punishment, to its theory or practice, to forms and styles of beatings, the belt, the open palm, etc. The threat was rare in our house, reserved only for really dreadful childhood crimes: maltreatment of our animal friends, theft, burglary, bodily harm of neighborhood children. In my brother's nursery, with my action paintings behind me, I suddenly knew, however, that I had placed myself on the list for such treatment. I was going to be spanked. My first thought was: How do I pin this on Dwight? It should have been easy. After all: my brother couldn't speak. I could say he had done anything. He's hiding behind his disability! He stole your savings passbook! He strangled the dog! He made me do it! He did it all and I seized the crayon from him, anxious to spare the room the terrible yellow and purple scribbles! I was trying to supervise! My brother's silence, however, had a sweetness that could have won over any jury. Look at that smile. Look at that blond mop. Look at those blue eyes.
And my mother believed him.
I spent the afternoon skulking around outdoors, playing alone with sticks and scraps of trash. (I was the middle child, I was left-handed, a brunet among blonds, I was covered with freckles, I was a mutant, a criminal, a foundling, a monstrosity. I was going to perish.) And then my father came home from the bank. He had barely loosed his tie, as I reconstruct it, before my mother, hands on hips, alerted him to the new interior decorating in my brother's nursery. Next, they stood in the doorway illumined a dim ceiling light, silently inspecting the damage. Our circular artwork. This is how much it will cost to repaint or this is the weekend that will be lost to do it ourselves. My mother came to find me. I was guiltily attempting to hide in the family room, behind a Shaker chair. Your father wants to talk with you. My sister and brother avoided the whole contretemps. They knew what was up, and they were staying clear. Serious trouble was communicable. It might travel from one of us to another.
I refused to move. I screamed as my mother dragged me out into the hall. I grabbed on to furniture. The fullness of mortal terror emerged from me. I blamed Dwight. I blamed Meredith, my sister, who had been at school and had nothing to do with any of it. I blamed anyone who was at hand. I was misunderstood. I was unloved. I was a special case. I pleaded for my life, for mercy, for kindness. The whole neighborhood would know of my torture. Finally, my parents sequestered me in their bedroom. Pale gray walls. My father's suit pants were folded over the back of a chair designed to maintain their press. The closet in the bedroom was open, and inside cellophaned delicates shimmered. I remember the simplicity of Dad's hairbrush on the countertop. Tortoiseshell. Classic, masculine, functional. Was it plastic? Were plastics advanced enough for hairbrushes the mid-sixties? The weapon had stiff brown bristles. Never before had it occurred to me to wonder which side of a hairbrush was used for a beating, bristle side or smooth surface, but now I knew. Bristles would have been too cruel. Or so I hoped. My father asked for no information on my wall-decoration project. This defendant was not encouraged to address the judiciary. In fact, my father didn't want to talk to me at all. He went through the business of taking down my trousers in silence. My skinny backside was exposed. And in some ways this was the worst part of the punishment, the Victorian spanking: the nakedness of it, the humiliation, the loss of self-determination. The spanking itself, one stroke only, was over instantly. Crimson indignity welled up in me alongside the sharp sting. I hopped around, gathering the complete text of my howl. I was left to hitch up my trousers myself.
My brother got off without a scratch.
Fathers may offer standard-issue praise, such as Attaboy! Stick with it! or Way to go! Fathers are able to dispense paternal wisdom even in a semiconscious or unconscious state. Fathers dispense advice that they spurned themselves.
He hated noise. The noise of kids, the footsteps of kids, herds of kids, mainly because he had gotten out of school, married immediately, spawned his first child ten months after marrying, two more the time he was twenty-six. He had no idea how he was going to pay. How to get us through college, how to manage difficult teenage rebellions, how to play baseball with us (when he hated baseball), how to talk to children when they were clearly a separate species. The noise of kids made my father wild because he was not actually watching the New York Giants on television or the news or whatever he feigned watching. He was brooding about how he was going to pay. And plots must have abounded at the office. And there was the unhealthy quiet of his marriage. And there was the uncomfortable political ferment of the times. Up on the second floor of our house in Darien, the house where we lived while my parents were married, I would be throwing a pile of shoes, one one, at my brother, trying to hit him in the head and knock him unconscious, and my brother would be crouched and screaming behind a desk, aiming a poison-tipped plastic spear at my face, when suddenly we would hear the sound of my father's voice in the stairwell, What the hell is going on up there? And we would fall into our shameful silence, an anxious silence so familiar as to have preceded our very births. Sometimes, intoxicated the need to inflict bodily harm on each other, we ignored the initial warnings until we heard footsteps in the hall. Then at the door. And then the door would open.
Fathers speak in code. Fathers speak of equity or short positions or of the zero coupon or of the long bond; fathers speak of the need for a balanced portfolio; fathers shake their fists at the enduring misery of the bear market; fathers try to explain rate fluctuation, money supply, policy at the Fed. Fathers will have certain stirring anthems that they need to replay on the stereo again and again, such as anthems from Broadway shows or occasional hard-luck country ballads.
We were gathered around the fireplace, the kids, in Darien, one autumn evening when my mother explained that she and Dad couldn't get along anymore. His recliner, next to where we stood, was empty. To one side of the fireplace, the irons, the bellows. Wood smoke wreathed us. My mom was wearing plaid. I wasn't surprised the direction of her remarks, though I had never seen any acrimony. There was a predictability about the whole discussion. A leaden disquiet to the scene. My brother was the only one who spoke up initially. By then he was a chatterbox. Don't get divorced! Don't get divorced! How did he know the word, since we were the first in the neighborhood to achieve that milestone? And though he stuttered much of the time, there was no stutter now. His plea was articulate and sad. My mother looked helpless. I tried to conceal myself behind my sister throughout the discussion, and this became my strategy later: Don't draw attention.