Archaeology of Dad by Marcus Pactor

Archaeology of Dad by Marcus Pactor

Fiction, Vol. 8.1, March 2014

You would not remember him. His name was buried with Cold War politics, but in the seventies and early eighties, he corresponded with Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz. He wrote op-eds for Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and Grey’s Review. His most famous piece remains “The Gift of Liberty,” which now appears to be a voluble mess, though it circulated quickly among Republican congressional staffers and certain of their bosses who needed a more glowing flag to wave.

It also earned him invites to Washington cocktail parties, where he played the part of a wallflower.1 He nursed wine, kept his mournful eyes down. His liver spot gave him distinction, but not the kind he wanted. He used creams to keep his cheeks smooth. They sheeted our apartment with medicinal smells. For his patrons at these events he wore subtle colognes. The party rooms had vaulted ceilings and soft lights. Huge frescoes implied bad taste all around. Weak jazz was tooted at the far end. American royalty nibbled at fancy cheese. They came to hear from big, harmless minds like his. Before a party, he wrote lines of Tacitus or Talmud on a slip of paper and folded it like a fortune cookie’s fortune. After dessert, he would slide his lines to an heiress, who did not need to know what the words meant to know what the words meant. His prep work opened many pairs of legs.

His success in these rooms, more than his writing, secured him a gin meeting with then-Representative Richard Cheney, at which the latter spoke at length about leather shoes and bar games. A dartboard in the shape of the Soviet Union was tacked to his washroom door. Cheney had played many times, apparently, without hitting the Moscow bull’s-eye. My father observed that, whatever the man’s other faults, he did not cheat at games. When they played at last, my father took a dive.

I cannot prove merely by the association of memories2 that it was my father who, on the third night of Chanukah in 1983, convinced President Reagan to propose the abolition of nuclear weapons, though I believe it to be true. Nor can I be certain whether my father was a prophet, heretic, or plain hack who, for an aberrant time, wrote from the heart. I am not certain I can prove much, or that anyone can prove much, about history by the mere presentation of facts. Even timelines are unconsciously subjective. Any widespread consensus is vague, as when we call 9/11 a dark day. I believe that Hume’s study of billiards has made logic subject to faith. But I shall at least knock around the balls till you see what makes my faith possible.

* * *

Substantively, “The Gift of Liberty” merited disdain. Stylistically, its labyrinthine network of images prefigured my father’s coming break with his friends. The metaphors contradicted themselves as they came into being. They were chopped up, baked together, and served as a drink.

The essay begins with a description of Lady Liberty’s torch-bearing hand. The statue is, of course, a gift: France paying homage to American virtue. The anecdote leads into his real subject, for the gift in question is not French and given to America, but American and granted to the world, and it is no statue, but a great fist of military love. Its fingers touch four points on the globe: Qatar, Japan, South Korea, and West Germany. The thumb is our navy, large and mobile enough to be anywhere at any time. The open fist has been given both to the countries it made home and to those in its vicinity. It guards the free world. Moreover, it is a beacon of hope. To those on the wrong sides of walls and DMZs, nothing is more precious than the freedom embodied by our tanks. This convoluted image3 is opposed to that of Khrushchev’s shoe, which the Soviet premier once used to interrupt the speech of either Filipino delegate Sumulong or British PM Macmillan.4,5 In the last decades of the Cold War, that shoe was a common trope of hawkish editorials, every bit as popular as Munich is today. My father wrote that Khrushchev might have already rotted underground, but his shoe had become the muddy boot of an ogre. It was raised and ready to stomp. Its shadow clouded out Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Before the foot at last came down, America must be ready.

Did he know how anciently Christian he sounded? The sickest monks wandered the desert for weeks on end with nothing but their backs to whip and their God to ponder. My father had a cramped study in a D.C. apartment, a nympho wife out mapping the beds of under-undersecretaries of the cabinet, and a child of uncommon plainness sneaking about with power tools. He was interested only in the fates of nations, so he kept to that study and wrestled with the political equivalent of his soul. His arguments were not made to be understood, but to be felt true. So the hack might tell himself, staring out his study’s window, viewing miles of sand from Sodom’s lush border.

One might say that the shoe remained with him in a most concrete sense, though one would no longer be speaking of Khrushchev’s shoe. One might say with more certainty that when I wore my K-Swiss regulars6 to the kitchen to nosh on snack cakes, his mind was tweaked. That night he stole into my room. That cube was sporadically dark. Our apartment was on the ground floor of an M Street tower, and my room was a punishment of light. All through the wishing hours, the limos of drunken diplomats flashed their high beams through my window. These beltings did not make visible the room’s contents to them, though they produced in me a trouble with sleep and pauses which I have not yet cured. But this is less about my sleep than about sneakers, and less about sneakers than about a man of ambiguous spirit in a fevered swamp and so, forward.

He waved the additional beam of his flashlight over the floors and across the bed, not stopping to examine its occupant, then into the closet, where he rummaged through laundry and photographs of whom or what I cannot recall, before at last deigning to dog it on his hands and knees, and retrieving them from the bottom of the shoe tree hanging from the closet door. My stillness in that period cannot be regarded with either praise or affection, which is just as well. My father rarely dispensed the former and required none of the latter. He sought and found in that room only a representation of life.

He delivered it to his study. It was not a secure location, as I had drilled a hole with a 3/8-inch bit at about eye level in a gap of bookshelf that I imagined occurred between the Ms and Ns of his library. By pressing to the hole a magnifying glass7, I was able to view my targets. Sometimes he stood in a posture that eclipsed the shoe, but mostly he sat Indian-style before the totem on a brown shag rug.

I stood to the shoe’s dead north, my father to its west. It had been set atop either a Collected Works of Plato or a thesaurus. My father drifted between despondence and sleep. The first occupied more time than the second. His despondence was marked by this sequence: a half-closing of the eyes, a lowered angle of the head, a removal of the glasses, a touch of the nose, a touch of the creamy cheek, followed by a touch of the liver spot. This spot was shaped like Peru turned on its side. It stayed three inches above his right eyebrow. It contrasted hard with his baby skin, pulled him deathward. Witness the slow procession of his moves, the repetition of the last two touches. The ritual suggests an attempt to draw from my shoe a vision beyond received political doctrine.

Now, when he slept, the hand fell. His legs remained crossed. His chin fell onto his chest. His congestion became audible. No one can doubt my hearing him sniffle and snort, but it may be doubted that a hole drilled with a 3/8-inch bit would suffer me to see clearly the shoe, much less my father, in such detail.8 I admit the details I have recorded do not sound like the products of memory. I record them nonetheless.

The shoe came to represent for him numberless children who, like me, may be kept unnamed and unseen: a generation. While his writing did not yet move beyond the pale of his ideology, it did grow more confused than ever. His columns included less history, more pop culture. In a piece from May 1983, he referenced Duran Duran to claim that the rising generation wanted a muscular foreign policy, as our enemies were hungry wolves9. His friend Cheney did not understand what a Duran was, much less the nature of its double, while no kid who loved bubblegum pop could locate Romania on a map of Eastern Europe. The generation itself he described as an embryo in the womb: “a nation to be born of our nation with many of our fine qualities, some of our flaws, and a wolfish need to hunt alone.” More wolves, you see. With proper nourishment, this favored wolf might be tamed. The desired result required the regimentation of the young. He thus began to outline the neoconservative push for national service that would become popular with them in the waning days of the Second Iraq War.

But we could not think, then, of the future. The present depressed us enough:

  • In September, my father’s friend and supporter, Representative Larry MacDonald, rode a plane shot down by the Soviets.
  • A few days later, a nuclear war was averted by Stanislav Petrov’s quick thinking, marking the rare time Americans thanked a foreign officer.
  • That very afternoon, my father discovered his wife in the passenger seat of his sedan, her face slapped against the window, her cheek too white, and her wrist bleeding out. I am imagining the view. There was no hole for me to see through to the body.
  • In October, Germans in Bonn protested for nuclear disarmament.
  • On the twenty-third of that month, terrorists blew up a mass of marines in Beirut.
  • On the twenty-fifth, American soldiers invaded Grenada. My father and I watched the news together. We sat beside each other on the couch. My feet did not touch the floor. I wore Nikes. He held the left K-Swiss on his lap and looped the lace around his bird finger. A gap remained between us. At that moment I regretted drilling new holes into his study.
  • On the third of November, a second near-doom occurred when NATO’s Able Archer exercises were wrongly interpreted as an attack. My father had not been sleeping. He had set aside both his razor and his creams. Sections of beard grew on him like scribbles of ink from a dying pen. Something like despondence was working on him. He touched the liver spot, but the touch did not follow or lead to other movements, so it did not entirely signify Dad’s normal way. He let the news drone till the history of these months was smushed together in his brain.
  • On one of those autumn weekends, I chanted without volume from the Torah. My portion was Chaye Sarah.

My father continued to spread columns with known germs: “media elite,” “partisan perfidiousness,” and “our fallen,” but they now included long descriptions of nuclear ends, of tennis shoes as the lasting features of an otherwise flattened globe. He imagined a worldwide Kansas, only deader. It was also Georgia, composed less of grass than of icy, red clay. The shoes implied the end of all generation. This was the most coherent writing he had ever published, splicing together two of our more unpleasant landscapes, making them general to the nation, and pinning blame for this bad dream to the president’s lapel. It ruined his social standing. He was uninvited to three galas. A Thanksgiving dinner was cancelled or postponed or moved to a secure location. His professional colleagues did not honor my manly attainment with gifts.

But Sophie Mall was brought to shul in an unmarked car. I still believe that she was responsible for the unsigned card wishing me a Happy Halloween. She once worked as a psychic medium for the first lady, but soon became exclusive to President Reagan. My father sat in the second row of the sanctuary. He seemed unaware of my silent chanting. His liver spot was more visible than his eyes. She took the empty seat to his left. It had been reserved by the rabbi for purposes related to the dead wife. Sophie set her hand on my father’s hand. His head lifted. He followed her out.10

Weeks later, I dug out the menorah from a ménage of pots in a cabinet that smelled wet and furry. On the first night, we lit what tradition required. I received a high-grade lazy man’s globe. Whenever I touched a country, a robot voice told me its name and capital. An accompanying stylus helped me with Baltic-class midgets. Lima, I learned, is the capital of Peru. On the second night, the apartment stayed quiet. On the third, my father received a call. I peeped through a fresh hole. He listened closely. He nodded. His beard dirtied his cheeks. Right then, the gaps of skin looked made of gossamer. Sophie later said that this was when my father learned that his words had moved the president. After the call, he hugged the shoe to his chest. He leaned against the far wall, beside a still life of a train’s caboose. We were long gone by the State of the Union address, when President Reagan called for the abolition of nuclear arms.

* * *

In Louisiana, we canceled a meeting with the Creole blood of his dead wife. We took a room northeast of New Orleans. We drove a rented pickup from one hamlet11 to the next, growing fat on the menus of local dives. While waiting for meals, he taught me the correct stance for the throwing of darts. One native did not put down his cigar to dispense advice, which my father had not the heart to decline. I began a journal. In it I failed to metaphorize the air’s scent: like tomatoes left to stew in the sun, like a stew with fecal gravy, like a giant duck’s innards had been tossed over the trees and shelters. To him I said we were pioneers, the first Jews to venture unarmed into these wetlands. It made him laugh, so I repeated the line in every town we hit. He taught me to peel a crustacean’s shell from the belly and to appreciate both its meat and its head juice. We drank too much root beer. We lamented our soaked, cottony brains. We discussed the cultural geography of the forlorn state. After one lunch we crawled out a door and saw a green mess staggering before us, each tree angled at its own chaos, but together. Such profound sights make me hate words like “profound.” My father used it, of course. We rested awhile at the swamp’s edge. He hoped a gator would come at us. “We’ll trap him and eat him, like your mama’s family would do.” Did we have traps? Did we have the chops? We did not even have my drill. But I had to encourage this new faith, so we waited in the high, cool, itchy grass. The sun filled out. Wait. This morning cannot have happened that day, as we had consumed several pounds of lunch before we saw the trees, yet I remember events unraveling in this order, and so record them. Shadows grew in every direction. They seemed to vibrate. Black gaps connected the trees. Light ran like veins through the gaps. Cayenne ghosts haunted our mouths and guts. At least he did not talk any more of profundity.

My good time slowed to an end. He ditched sleep altogether. He turned the knob of the television round and round. Housekeeping made the beds but left his tissues to conglomerate and spill over the sides of tables. His lips moved. He studied a cartoon drawing of a crawfish. He drew heavy bushes over his writing. He went through all the motions of despondency. I followed him out of the hotel to a gas station, where he bought the local paper and listened to clerks and night owls. He replied. I assume he did not quote Talmud to them. A week later, I was not surprised to find my K-Swiss in the wastebasket. He was barefoot when he said that he had not been himself lately. He said that I must forgive her.

His toes were notably hirsute. I would count every hair of every toe, if necessary, but I would not say a word. I had reached the seventh hair of his right big toe when he quit the match.

“‘Me,’” he said. “That’s what I meant. Of course. Wow.”


Then we were home. The apartment had been scrubbed and mopped. Chemical pine burned my throat and emptied my nose. My holes had been patched up and painted over. Imperfectly, yes. I liked to run my hand over the new topography. I could huff the powder all day. My room must have been searched, but I found my drill in the hollowed-out Spanish dictionary on the shelf. When he left for interviews, I drilled anywhere other than those plastered spots. I used quarter-inch bits, as the goal was no longer to see.

Mudbugs grew thick in his mind. He had been wrong about generation, he said. If we can depend on these critters to crawl into traps every March12, then surely we could expect America to survive a nuclear war. The crawfish represented Louisiana, which had survived hurricanes and crooked pols and general misfortune as the Mississippi’s anus. Could any link in our nation’s chain be broken, one might suspect this link first, yet his travels in the state had proven to him that generation would continue and that America would last. That was the present hope of the free world.

He may have given up on the profound.

His schlock found welcome in old homes. Soon Misters Kristol and Podhoretz were grooming me with hardbound sets of Carlyle and de Tocqueville. These soon became storage bins for weed. I connected the new set of holes with a light pencil and found that, at best, I had drawn a pungent stream. My father was invited again to parties and even to appear on Face the Nation. He declined. It was enough for him to have had his byline back. He slept more often, desponded less. He returned to his creams, but they did not restore his youth. Not well, not completely. He grew more liver-spotted, I mean.

He quizzed me every Friday on heads of state. He told me how his wife had been. He wanted me to see how the couple once glowed. On my eighteenth birthday, we went to a pool hall near Georgetown, where he allowed me the first shot. I scratched. A woman entered with a look not entirely inviting, but my father did invite her to join our party. She whipped him a look of such prejudice that I knew she knew he knew she knew who he was, or at least who he appeared to be in print. I could have brained her with the cue ball. But my father leaned across the table. He proceeded to win four games without my taking a second shot. Then he returned to his drink, which, like mine, was a Coke.

My expression could not have been pleasant.

“How about that?” he said.

Perhaps I was thinking even then that my father could have gone down as the greatest pundit of his time, but instead his name would be misspelled and filed in the wrong cabinet. Perhaps only I will know who he might have been.13

. . .

1 Against a wall? I see him inside a wall.

2 So notorious for their distortions and gaps.

3 To summarize: the American military was an open/closed/beaming fist/hand/lighthouse.

4 Do not worry about which guy Khrushchev interrupted. This yarn is apocryphal.

5 Have you already objected to the number of names? I get it, but they were rampant and substantial among us, therefore essential to this archaeology. They were like holes you wanted muscled into place or swallowed by rooms.

6 These were quite stylish in 1983. I was twelve that year, in preparation for a Bar Mitzvah that did not come off entirely. I woke up hoarse on Saturday morning and had to mouth the Torah portion. The audience must have been burdened by the need to fake attention to my lips, which could not be seen well beyond the first ten rows of seats.

7 A birthday gift from an uncle twice removed. His accent was too Creole to charm me.

8 Other relevant numbers—
Before the month was out, I would drill nine more holes. Thirty-six feet separated the one farthest left from its counterpart on the farthest right.
Taken altogether, with the mental drawing of a line between them, the holes resembled a check drawn backwards or the number seven turned on its back.
I could bridge the space between two of the holes with one fully extended bird finger. Others were separated by half a Porsche’s length.
I got pleasure when I examined a drill bit and found not only wall but shreds of a book caught in its flutes.

9 Much too late! “Hungry Like the Wolf” peaked at number 3 on the charts exactly one year before.

10 I found her again during my freshman year at Georgetown, when I felt myself ascending because everybody else looked so full of decline. Sophie, among them, had aged twelve years in five. We were taking the same Easy A course: “Man’s Food.” The president forgot her for good in 1986. That’s when Nancy had her booted off White House grounds. Despite the loss, Sophie had mashed together one smile, two Visine eyes, and a general longing into a presentable face. After some frottage, she shared with me this mind-wiping weed as well as the story of my father’s meeting with Reagan in the Oval Office. She prefaced it by exclaiming that the material was classified.

11 Including Chalmette, Madisonville, Mandeville, and Covington.

12 I learned thusly that we had eaten them well out of season. We certainly could not tell fresh from frozen.

13 Certainly, by 1987, when he proposed abolition directly to Premier Gorbachev, the president had forgotten my father. Set aside Reagan’s disease. The point is that my father could not have struck him as more than a blip of consciousness, a ghost of a ghostly tap on the heart, a jumble of words about shoes. Less than that? A blank wall? The man did not know what he had lost.

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