On the hot, breathless, soft, fragrant afternoon of my graduation from Princeton it seemed that everything good was note merely latant but unavoidable, folded and in the bag. I’d worked like a Turk those past years, and my labors had been rewarded and then some with fancy Latin on my fancy diploma. Summa it said and summit I believed. Not one but two ex-girlfriends had come to the ceremony in front of lovely tree-shaded Nassau Hall, and so resolutely happy was I that it didn't even stain my pride to sweat through my shirt and gray worsted suit, to be capped like a monkey in tasseled mortarboard.
Each of my ex’s had brought me the same gift, a suitcase. It occurred to me that unarticulated longings were expressed by these mementos, and coming to them for visits wouldn’t have answered their prayers. Sending me off solo on a long voyage would have been in the ballpark. Godspeed would have done their fantasies justice, adios was more like it.
And that too was as I wished it! All was jake, A-okay, on the come and coming! Admitted, I had no money, but a job was waiting come September, far, far away, teaching in Turkey, which was even farther from my father in California than I was now in the Garden State, and the farther the better. The last time I had intersected with him, two years ago, he had swept through Princeton in a car sought for repossession, charging clothes and books and jazz records to my accounts. My stepmother, having just left him again and for good, gave me unwelcome word of him a year later; he was in Redondo Beach, in trouble.
For me, that June, what was trouble? A college friend with a different kind of daddy, the kind who owned a 50-foot paid-for ketch, had invited me to spend the summer with him on that boat in Cape Cod Bay, Buzzards Bay, Nantucket Sound. Vineyard Sound. Narragansett Bay. It was our onus to sail that Sea Witch from snug harbor to snug harbor, cleaning and polishing and varnishing, making the boat readv for his parents’ pleasure if they wanted to come aboard, which they wouldn't because they had better places to play that summer, as though there could be a better place to play than where we were to be fed and paid to play. I was warned that sunburn was a lively danger, likewise hangovers from the free consumables at coming-out parties in Nonquit and Nantucket, Newport and Edgartown. Dark and lonely work, but somebody had to do it.
Now, a few days after graduation, doing it, we were embarked. My suitcases and diploma were stored ashore with my passport and vaccination certificates and Greek tragedies in translation; we tugged at anchor off Cuttyhunk, drinking a rum drink to celebrate our third day at sea. There were four of us, two happy couples laughing and watching sun fall, when my father got through on the radio-telephone. Writing about that conversation 34 years later, I feel foggy dread, as though I’ve sailed on a cloudless day through deep clear water, bang onto a reef. It’s the nature of a radio-telephone conversation that everyone aboard can hear it, not to mention anyone else aboard any vessel within miles who wants to listen in.
This conversation mortified me. My dad stuttered flamboyantly. He did everything abundantly, elaborately, extravagantly, but his stuttering was grandiose. Moreover, he couldn’t get the hang of the turn-and-turn-about of a radio conversation, in which one either speaks or listens. Listening was not my dad’s thing, so I heard myself shouting at him, and worse I heard myself stammering back, so that it must have seemed I was mocking the poor fellow, when in fact I was falling, as abruptly as a boat may fetch upon a shoal, into the speech defect I had inherited from him — nature or nurture, who cares?
While my friends, helplessly obliged to eavesdrop, pretended to have a conversation in the cockpit, I was below, where it was dark and close, as if the clean, salty air had been sucked
from the cabin. I stretched the mike on its snaky cord as far from my friends as possible, but the loudspeaker stayed put, broadcasting his invitation.
My father wanted me to come to him for the summer, in La Jolla.
I said I wouldn't.
My father said he missed me.
I said nothing.
My father tried to tell me he had a j-j-j-job.
I said, really, how nice. (I thought, how novel, what a piquant notion, my dad working for a living.)
My father said congratulations on the degree.
I wondered how he’d guessed I had one.
He said congratulations on the job in Turkey, did I remember he’d lived there once upon a time?
I said I remembered.
He asked did I have a “popsie" aboard with me?
I reddened; it was quiet in the cockpit; I said I had to get off now, this was too expensive, far too complicated.
He said my brother was coming to La Jolla to visit from Washington State. I didn’t believe my father. I hadn’t seen Toby for seven years.
My father said it again, Toby was right now on the road from Concrete. Washington, arriving in a couple of days.
I listened to static while gentle waves slapped the Sea Witch.
He said he’d send airfare.
I said sure. I thought fat chance.
I borrowed ticket money from the yachtsman dad and hopped a hound (more accurately a Trailways — cheaper) in New York. This would be the place to detail the squalor of a cross-country summer bus journey from the noxious flats of Jersey to the uncompromising wasteland of Death Valley — you know the drill, you’ve ridden a bus, you’ve read about the loads. Assume I was sad, hungry, and as funky as everyone else aboard our land yacht, our prairie schooner. The one constant in addition to the diesely whine-while successive drivers went up through the gearbox — do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do — and down — do-ti-la-sol... — was the question I kept asking myself: How had this happened to me? Why was I here?
You might think — noticing the books I was conspicuously reading and annotating, and I’m afraid you were meant to notice them and me — that the question Why was I here? was a Big Question and that I was questing for a vision from Sophocles, Erich Auerbach, Sartre, George Steiner. Boy oh boy, you think you know your aliens! I felt so apart from my fellow passengers that I believed I needed a visa to visit Earth. But at some point west of Gila Bend and cast of El Centro, with the air conditioning on the blink again, 1 commenced to reflect on the situation of La Jolla, seaside, wasn’t it? Even a martyr had to take time off for a swim.
Hedonism, taking care of fun before taking care of business, was a legacy from my father. For this he had been thrown out of one boarding school after another to the theatrical dismay of his mother and father, a Hartford, Connecticut, surgeon. For this he had also been thrown out of two colleges, neither of which, despite his testimony to the contrary, was a fancy and ancient university. For buying what he could not afford — sports cars and sports coats, Patek-Philippe wristwatches, dinners at Mike Romanoff's and 21, Leicas and Bolexes, Holland & Holland shotguns, whatever nice thing was around — he’d been fired from jobs. These jobs as an airplane designer (I know, I know, he was audacious) he had conned his way into with faked-up resume. Getting fired would put him in a bad mood, so he’d buy more stuff; buying stuff intoxicated him, and so did booze. Drunk, he’d turn on his first wife, my mother and Toby’s. After 14 years of this, she told Dad to get lost, and I moved in with him. When I was 17, his second wife — her fortune and good mood seriously depressed by my old man — took a hike on him, and soon after that he took one on me. In the Wolff nuclear family, fission was all the rage.
Dad met me at the same bus station where he’d met Toby more than a week earlier. Visiting San Diego recently, I was hard-pressed to find any place downtown as melodramatically seedy as my memory of that place, a garishly lit set dressed with tattoo parlors, bucket-of-blood bars, pawnshops and, under the hard light of noon, my dad looking bewildered and lost. I had for many childhood years loved him recklessly, investing him with achievements and wisdom and powers beyond the reach of any mortal, and only a pinch less magnificent than the history and potential he had bestowed upon himself. Spare any father such impulsive love as I showered on that man. Later, when I became disillusioned, when I imagined that I understood Duke Wolff for what he really was — a deadbeat bullshit artist with a veneer of charm rubbed right through from negligent overexercise — I hated him, and like the love before it, that hate too was indulgent, exorbitant.
This June afternoon outside the bus depot, examining my father blinking behind the thick lenses of owlish Goldwater specs, I was too wary to indulge contempt. The eyeglasses, out of register with Duke’s formerly stylish presentations, were the least of it.
Even at his lowest he’d enjoyed flamboyant temperamental resources: flash and sprit/ and nonchalance.
Now he seemed timid, dulled, hungover. No, that wasn’t it either; I was all too inured to his hangovers, which used to provoke in my dad manic snap, as though he’d decided that if this was as bad as it got, bring it on, let’s start another IV Mount Gay rum drip. What I was seeing lumbering toward me was a crummy linen-ish jacket. This wasn’t what I’d have expected: seersucker, maybe, or the soiled white linen suit that Sydney Greenstreet might sport — tits-up in the tropics and all that — but not this, some thing on whose behalf a thousand polyesters had lost their lives, some rag that needed a cleaning the day it was sold, tarted up with cheapjack brass crested buttons. From Duke’s good old bad old days of smart tailoring, what a fall was here! Halting toward me was a zombie. Dad Wolff looked as though he’d been shot smack in the heart with about 500cc of Thorazine. Talk about taking the edge off! He looked like they’d sawed through his brain.
My brother Toby, 15, was with him, hanging back gingerly. vigilant. I felt like someone to whom something bad would soon happen; Toby looked like someone to whom it had already happened. This was the more alarming because he looked so wakeful and sharp. He had a strong, bony face, with steady eyes and a jutting chin. He was tall and lean, handsome, like our mother. He didn’t appear vulnerable; he gave an impression of competence, but after all, he was a kid.
I hadn't seen Toby during the past seven years, but we’d recently been in touch by telephone and letter, and I knew that he’d had a rocky time of it with his stepfather. Coming across the country to see my only sibling, I’d phoned from a roadside diner to tell Duke which bus to meet and I’d reached Toby. He didn’t know where our father had disappeared to. No sooner had Toby arrived than Dad had taken off with a woman friend in a fancy Italian car. He had left his teenaged son with a hotel phone number and a vague assurance that he'd return to La Jolla in a few days. Years later, here’s how Toby recollected the situation in his heartbreaking memoir. This Boy's Life (1989):
"My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California. He left me with the keys to a rented Pontiac and a charge account at the corner grocery. For two weeks I drove back and forth along the beach and ate TV dinners and went to movies with an acquaintance of my father’s who had offered to keep an eye on me. One morning I woke up to find this man embracing me and making declarations of love. I got him out of the apartment and called my father, who told me to "shoot the bastard" if he came back. For this purpose he directed me to a .223 Air Force Survival Rifle he had hidden in the closet. He waited on the telephone while I fetched the rifle from its hiding place, then instructed me in its assembly.
"That night the man leaned against the apartment door and sobbed while I stood in the darkness on the other side, silently hugging the rifle, sweating and shaking as in a fever."
Toby collapsed the remaining ten weeks of our family summer into three paragraphs. In The Duke of Deception (1979), my book of memories of my father, I gave it more, ten pages, but I guess I’m not through with that reunion yet, and I guess I’m not soon going to be. Almost 20 years ago, for research on behalf of The Duke of Deception, written to give my sons as much of their family history as I could articulate, I gumshoed details about my father’s final years in California, in and out of prisons and state mental hospitals, on the dole or on the lam. I did this digging in the beach towns south of Los Angeles, where Duke Wolff came to his dismal end, dying in a tiny apartment in Manhattan Beach two weeks before the milkman found him in August of 1970. I could bear seeing that place, endure an interview with the police who knew him too well, with his parole officer, with merchants he’d stiffed and neighbors he’d bullshitted. But till now I'd kept my distance from pretty l.a Jolla and from San Diego and from up close and personal memories of my terminal pileup with my dad.
Finally, I figured, what the hell, then was a long time ago. As a writer, and especially as a husband, and most especially as a father. I’m all for generosity, bygones being bygones, healing. So I was unprepared for the vividness of my recall of that summer, of the effect on me of finding our apartment near Windansea Beach, of finding the hangar (or one just like it) where I worked for Convair Astronautics on Pacific Highway, of searching for the San Diego city jail (since torn down) where I last saw my father, of bringing all this back so that maybe (fat chance!) I could get it buried for good.
Behind the wheel of the hubby-inummy rented Pontiac, driving to La Jolla, Duke was stiff and tentative. This was unlike him. I remembered him as a bold driver, fast and cocksure, every little journey to the grocery store a high-octane adventure in squealing tires and red-lined rpms. Now Dad held to the slow lane, glancing anxiously in the rearview. His face had once been imposing, Mussolini-monumental; now his nose was bulbous, stippled with burst blood vessels. The few times he spoke, I saw that his false teeth, what he used to call China clippers, were loose against his gums. I had questions:
Where had he gone, leaving Toby alone? How could he take time off from his job?
Asking this question I gave the impression, meant to give it, that I didn’t believe he had a job. How soon could he give me cash (I came down hard on cash, to distinguish it from a check or an IOU) to repay my yachtsman classmate's yachtsman daddy? These questions immediately returned us to our fundamental relationship: I was the hectoring (and mind-dullingly dull) parent; Duke was the irresponsible (and charmingly fun-loving) kid. The exchange didn’t leave much for Toby to do except sit in the back seat and study his fingers, as though he might be looking hard at his hole cards.
Duke was miserly with basic information — what exactly he did for a living, where he had gone “in the desert” (as he put it) or why. But as we approached La Jolla, he became effusive about his “lady friend." This conversation had the effect of making Toby visibly uncomfortable, inasmuch as it had been my father’s stated ambition, made explicit to Toby, to re-up with our mom if everything this summer went swimmingly, as of course it must. This nutty scheme had (no, wonders never do cease) a certain appeal to my mother, who has had a lifelong weakness for nutty schemes. Her marriage to her second husband, like her marriage to Duke before that, was a disaster, and Duke after all did live in Southern California, and my mom, freezing up near the Canadian border, had always had, as she put it, “sand between my toes.” But even this quixotic woman — who had decided a few years earlier that it was a sage idea to drive from Florida to Utah to explore for uranium without knowing what uranium was or why anyone wanted it — was on hold as for as a re-enrollment in Dad’s program was concerned, waiting to get a report card from Toby on Duke’s attendance and comportment.
When we rolled up in front of a tiny bungalow east of Girard Avenue, my befuddlement increased. The woman who greeted us, as warily as Toby and I greeted her, was nothing like my father’s type. He was drawn to palefaces, to blue eyes, to understated clothes. This woman was sunburnt brown, her leathery skin set off with much jangly jewelry. She wore many, many rings of the turquoise family, accessorizing showy peasant duds from south of the border, busy with applique and bold stitching. She wore, for God’s sake, cowgirl boots ornamented with horsehair.
We stood beside the car shaking her ringed hands and listening to her bracelets ring like chimes; we admired her cactus garden; she got to listen to my father — and not, I suspected, for the first time — inflate my achievements at college and Toby’s in high school; she didn’t invite Toby or me inside. She didn’t invite Dad inside either, but it was clear that inside was where he was going, and without his only children. He gave us rudimentary instructions to "my flat near the beach.” Toby, manifestly eager to get away from where we were, assured me he knew the way. Duke said he’d be along soon, he’d bring home a nice supper. 1 asked how he’d get home from there, and he waved vaguely, mumbled “taxi.” His lady friend seemed as unhappy as a person can be without flooding the earth with tears. Duke, by contrast, had abruptly come awake to joy; he was peppy, full of beans.
“Don’t you two rascals go getting in t-t-t-trouble," he warned. “And if the manager badgers you about the rent, tell her to go f-f-f-f...”
“Go f-f-fish,” I s-s-s-said.
Driving south through the attractive neighborhoods to our little second-floor studio apartment on Playa del Sur, 50 yards from the beach, I was mostly preoccupied with Toby, glad for the chance to be alone with him. He, too, relaxed, lit a Lucky Strike expertly with his lighter, inhaled intemperately, remarked that it had been an oddball visit so far. I asked him to steer while I lit a Camel expertly with my lighter, inhaled intemperately, and warned him that smoking was bad for his wind, especially if he planned to make a name for himself playing football at the Hill School back in Pennsylvania, where he was beginning on full scholarship in September.
My avuncular manner surprised me. I prided myself on being a laissez-faire kind of guy, I’ll look out for me, you look out for you. Maybe I was practicing to become a teacher. Maybe I was out of my depth.
I unpacked my worldly goods — mostly books, a few jazz LPs (Bessie Smith, Bud Powell, the Miles Davis Quintet, with Coltrane) I carried with me everywhere — and Toby wanted to show me the beach. This generosity was all Wolff — sharing the good news, keeping alert to fun. By then it was late afternoon, and I worried that Dad might come home to an empty apartment, but Toby argued soberly that he didn’t imagine Duke would be rushing home from his friend’s house. I saw the wisdom in this hunch.
And so, dressed in long trousers and boat shoes and a white Lacoste tennis shirt, I accompanied Toby across Vista del Mar and Neptune Place to the Pump House and down concrete steps to the beach. The first things I noticed were not the bitchin’ sets of waves breaking way off shore, nor the surfers paddling way out there waiting to ride, nor the surfers with lots of white hair waxing their boards near the water’s edge. I noticed, of course, the babes, and so did Toby.
“Hubba hubba,” he said with reassuring irony, a family vice.
So we sat for a long time on a couple of hand towels, talking about the future, with our eyes cocked on the very here and now, avoiding the subject of our father. In no time at all I felt the love for my brother that till now I’d only assumed, too reflexively, as a given. He was witty, resourceful, a hit parade of corny songs, which he was willing to sing out loud: “On the Wings of a Dove” and “Calendar Girl” He could do Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” and Hank Williams — “Hey, hey good lookin’, whatcha got cookin’, hows about cookin’ something up with me?” He could do a Jimmy Rogers yodel in caricature of a locomotive whistle, and he knew the gospel classics, “The Old Rugged Cross.” He did tenor lead, I did baritone. Even then, he remembered the words I’d forgot. The dynamite chicks stared frankly at us and our noise, with what I imagined that afternoon — but never imagined again — was interest.
It didn’t get dark till nine or so. We waited. The landlord came asking for rent. He was kind, patient, pretended to believe that we didn’t know where our old man could be found. He said it had gone on too long now, that Duke was months behind, that he had no choice....
“Do what you have to do,” I said, thinking about a sailboat waiting for me back East.
“Such a shame,” he sighed, “a man of his attainments, with his education!”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
When the landlord left, Toby said, “Tell me something. Did Dad really go to Yale?”
“What do you think?”
“So that would pretty much rule out his graduate degree from the Sorbonne?”
We laughed together, bless us.
Sometime after midnight we quit talking, stopped listening to my jazz records and Dad’s Django Reinhardt and Joe Venuti. We’d eaten a couple of cans of Dinty Moore stew, knocked back some Canadian Club we’d found on a high shelf of the mostly bare cupboard. We’d each asked aloud where the other thought Duke might be. We’d wondered aloud whether we should look for him, but I was sure he was drunk, and he had always been a mean drunk, and I didn’t want to find him. I didn’t trust myself to keep my hands to myself while he sat on the edge of his bed in his boxers, snarling about how ungrateful I was, how grievously I had kicked him in the ass when he was down: You’re a real piece of work, aren’t you? I’d heard it; I didn’t think I could hear it again, especially if it came to be Toby’s turn.
A couple of hours before dawn, his lady friend phoned. She was hysterical, said she didn’t know what to do, he wouldn’t leave, wouldn’t move, wouldn’t speak. He’d rock back and forth weeping.
“You’ve got to get him out of here. I can’t take this. What if my husband comes snooping around?”
So I phoned the police. What happened next that night I’ve told in The Duke of Deception. By the time Toby and I got there, the police had called for an ambulance. Dad was breathing, but save for the technicality of being alive, he was gone from this world. His lady friend too said, as so many ex-bosses, ex-friends, ex-wives, creditors, teachers, doctors, parole officers before and after had said, A man with his educational attainments, what a pity!
They checked him into Scripps Memorial Hospital. The police had investigated his wallet and he had Blue Cross. Now this was a shock, because he had Blue Cross owing to the fact that he also had a job! Just as he’d said. He worked for General Dynamics’ Convair Astronautics. By sunup I knew this, and knew as well that he was catatonic, and roughly what catatonia was. He would be removed that afternoon to a “more appropriate facility,” and I could guess what that would be. As obdurately as my heart had hardened, I heard myself telling the doctor to tell Dad his sons were here for him, we were behind him all the way. Toby nodded.
“Well,” the doctor said, “he has said a few words. He keeps asking for a woman who lives in town. Could you help out with this, maybe let her know he wants to see her?”
“No,” I said.
That morning I worked out a deal with the landlord. On principle he wouldn’t let us stay in the apartment on which so much rent was due, but he’d let me lease, in my name, an identical unit down the exterior hall, same monthly rent but this time he required an up-front security deposit, first and last month in cash or by cashier’s check by the end of business tomorrow.
I borrowed it from a classmate, the roommate of the son of the yachtsman dad from whom I’d borrowed my bus fare. Tangled, wot? It took a boy of my educational attainments to keep all those debts straight, all the lines of credit, but a boy of my educational attainments also knew how to cash in on sympathy. My classmate friend cabled the money from New York that afternoon, and that night Toby and I moved our father’s entirely unpaid-for worldly goods to our new residence.
Drunk on resourcefulness, I bought a car and found a job the very next day. The car caught my eye on the lot of Balboa Auto Sales. I’m confident of the name of the dealer because I still have a copy of my stiff reply from Istanbul to a bill collector in San Diego (Hi there, Mr. Ben D. Warren!) begging for the final $150 of the $300 purchase price on a ’52 Ford convertible, cream, with torn red vinyl upholstery and bald whitewall tires and an appetite for oil that gave my jaunty wreck a range of about three miles between lube stops, which made the drive to Tijuana, a popular excursion in the coming weeks, a hardship that only the senoritas of the rowdier cantinas could ameliorate. Ask Toby, he was in charge of oil changing, while I was in charge of drinking and whoring.
The job was easier to cop than the automobile. I simply went to Dad’s employer, on the theory that they needed to replace him, and offered my services. A few weeks ago in Princeton, getting my diploma. I’d suspected life was going to go smoothly for me, but this...this was silky! To build rockets during the age of the putative missile gap, the government had contracted with General Dynamics to supply Atlas ICBMs at cost-plus. Now cost-plus, I don’t have to tell San Diegans, is one sweet deal. The greater the cost, the greater the plus, so personnel basically threw money at me when I walked through its door with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Every time I opened my mouth to mention courses I’d taken — history, American civilization, Spanish — they tossed in another jackpot, so that by day’s end I was an engineering writer for more than $800 a month with an advance from the credit union and a complete understanding of how my father had found a job with these cheerful jokers.
Don’t you miss the Cold War?
During the following week I was obliged to attend a training program that required seeing face to face the potent stainless Thermos, about a mile high, that could at the push of a red button bring hellfire down on our enemy, confound Nikita in his bathroom if he tried anything funny. I learned this from a series of training films — darkness at noon, indeed — that whipsawed from the upbeat (We’re Numero Uno!) to the dire (Nuke ’em!); the latter were visual records of missiles failing to get off the ground, out of the silo. These were rockets cobbled together by competing companies. One of these contraptions (Missile by Martin? I don’t want to slander an innocent munitions capitalist) came roaring slowly from below the earth, dragging behind it an entire underground habitation, what looked like a scorched kitchen and living room, connected by pipes to the fiery thing that toppled over after achieving an altitude of about 18 inches.
My job at Astro was simple. I summarized it in The Duke of Deception:
"My work, what they called my work, was done in a hangar with about 200 other engineering writers. We sat in rows translating English into technical jargon. The engineering reports were given to us with certain words underlined, and these words were to be replaced with other words, which were listed in a loose-leafed dictionary. The single skill required for my job was a knowledge of the alphabet, and I finished a day’s labor in about two hours.
"The other six I sat at my desk, staring at my hands. I was not permitted to bring anything—a book, say — into the hangar. I was to be at my desk from punch-in to punch-out, in case government inspectors came around to check on the cost-plus arrangements."
Dad was embalmed in an academy of laughter down in Chula Vista, not much of a detour from my weekend line of march to Tijuana. Toby and I were permitted to visit only on Saturdays, which suited my schedule fine, and when we visited he behaved like his old self, which, on the best day of his life, did not display a mastery of your everyday parenting skills. He seemed oblivious to any inconvenience he might have caused his sons, made no mention of the carnage of Toby's first week in La Jolla. Quotidian challenges were beneath his notice: whether he’d lost his job (he had), how much longer his insurance would support his treatment (not long enough), by what transport we’d conveyed ourselves to our audience with him (he did fret about a car “I had to desert in the desert,” a play on words that amused him so exceedingly that he neglected the situation’s starker implication, soon enough to weigh heavily on him).
We met a few of his new friends, men and women jollier than I would have expected, but their serenity might have been an outcome of the electric shock therapy Duke resolutely and justly resisted. He was busy with workshop therapy, making a leather portfolio into which he burned my initials. This was a difficult gift to receive, and to hold now.
Not least because it fell into a category of assets — personalized keepsakes — that opened a painful fissure between Toby and me. One thing, and it was a thing, was uppermost on my father’s mind when my brother and I visited his asylum in Chula Vista. This was a silver cigarette lighter inscribed to him in London after the Blitz by friends in the RAF when he was in England on behalf of North American to deliver P-51 Mustangs. He wanted that lighter; jeepers, did he desire that silver lighter, did we grasp that the lighter MATTERED to him? He decided that we had lost it during our move from one apartment to another. Oh, was he disappointed! His new friends would like to see that inscribed silver lighter, and he’d like to show it to them.
Why didn’t we just run back to La Jolla and find it, “chop-chop”?
It’s amazing what kids — even kids as old as I was then, old enough to buy a car on the installment plan and to sign a lease — will accept as the way of the world. I don’t mean merely that kids are subject to arbitrary tyrannies, though they are; I mean that until I had sons I never really understood how emotionally derelict my father was. I judged the cost of his selfishness on an empirical scale, by the measurable havoc he inflicted on me. It wasn’t till I had sons that I began to understand that such lunatic solipsism as Duke’s shook the rudiments of his sons’ worlds, misaligned the paths connecting us, upset proportion, priority, ratio, reason itself.
How else explain us searching together the 50-foot walkway connecting those two apartments, as well as the shrubs below that walkway, as well as our new apartment? What warped sense of duty provoked us to knock on the door of the new tenants’ apartment during the dinner hour to persuade them that we needed to search every inch of their abode for a lost cigarette lighter?
And failing to find it, to phone the car rental company, the very company that was seeking payment from our father, to ask if a silver cigarette lighter had been found in one of their Pontiacs?
I think now, considering my own dear sons, beginning at last to fathom how difficult it is to be anyone’s son, that our father drove us insane that summer. I’ll speak for myself. He pushed me to the edge and over it.
My life with Toby seemed, on the surface, subtracting weekend visits to the loony bin in Chula Vista and the brothels of Tijuana, workaday. After staring at my pencils and at my colleagues staring at their pencils for six of the eight hours I “worked” in a hangar, the Ford would stumble up the coast to La Jolla, trailing cloud banks of exhaust, a whole weather system. 1 drove with the tom top up to shelter myself from the black fog that swirled around me when I was stopped in traffic.
But there I go, looking at the dark side, getting Gothic on you. At day’s end there was home, simple but clean. And the beach. Ah, Windansea! Remember my first visit there, my eyes as big as plates, those surfer chicks, what Dad called popsies? Well, I hadn’t completed my second walk from the Pump House south toward Big Rock Reef when a teen approached me.
“Hey!” she said. Her toenails were painted vivid red. Her hair was...guess what color. She was... (Did you guess pretty?)
I cradled my paperback. “Hey, yourself," I came back.
“You from around here?" she asked.
I chuckled. “No. No, not at all, just visiting on my way to Istanbul.”
“Is that on the beach?” (No, of course she didn’t ask that. There’s no call to get snotty here, just because I was about to have my heart broken.)
“Huh?” (That’s what she said.)
“Are you from around here?” was my trenchant rejoinder. She was, she said, she was. And her business with me was to invite me to a keg party that night down in Pacific Beach. She was glad I could make it. We’d have a lot of fun. Was I sure I had the address written down? She checked what I’d written on the title page of Camus’s The Stranger.
“Thing is, me and my friends need some cash to front the keg."
Thing was, I didn’t have any cash in my bathing suit. Could I bring it when I came? No? Okay, hang on, don’t go anywhere. I’ll just run home and get it, which I did. She was waiting by a VW van, pretty much holding her pretty hand out.
I don’t have to tell you how the party went. What party, eh? What Surf Boulevard in Pacific Beach?
Seven years later, reading Tom Wolfe’s title essay in The Pump House Gang, I felt a full flush of shame rise from my toes. The keg scam was a chestnut among the surfers and surfer-babes at Windansea. But that was the least of my mortification there. Frank laughter was the worst of it. Back home at the Jersey shore or on the beach at Watch Hill, blinking contemplatively behind my groundbreaking round, silver-framed glasses (so far ahead of the curve that the nickname “granny glasses” hadn’t yet been invented), in my navy polo shirt to hide my chubby tits, in my Brooks Brothers madras bathing costume, by George I was a stud muffin! Here, carrying a Great Book past those hep longboard-ers in their nut-hugger nylon suits with competition stripes, I was a freaking joke!
A few months ago I re-read The Pump House Gang. Try it yourself, it’s a consolation, the revenge of the weenies. The first paragraph introduces us to someone who could have been the younger sister of the honey who burned me for keg money;
“Pam Stacy, 16 years old, a cute girl here in La Jolla, California, with a pair of orange bell-bottom hip-huggers on....” Oh my, bring those hip-huggers to my beach and I’ll show you a fun time!
After I re-read Wolfe’s essay, I walked that beach again. Same comely youngsters. Now, at 58, worse even than then, I’m invisible. I could be wearing a swallow-tailed coat and periwig; I
could be bare-assed naked; I could go swimming in a jester’s cap and bells. Same outcome: mere air, imperceptible, unseen, not there, not here, a real nowhere man.
So where, during these humiliating hours after work, was Toby? Safe inside, at his books, writing essays I assigned him. It took him a while to forgive me for practicing my apprentice teaching skills on him. To prepare him for the exactions of a classical education at the Hill School, I obliged him to do a day’s work while I did a day’s work, to read a book a day and write an essay every week: “Blindness and Insight in King Lear and the Oedipus Tyrannus”; “The Boundaries of Sea and River: Liberty and Bondage in Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn.” I guess what I knew best came in pairs. It was crazy the hoops I made my beleaguered, injured, perplexed little brother jump through. He wrote them; he was a better reader and writer for them; I was a tin-pot despot, as arbitrary in my edicts as Duke sending us on a treasure hunt for his firestick. No wonder Toby stole from his father and lied to me.
You’ve probably guessed he’d had the sacred lighter all along. Used it to spark up that Lucky during our ride in the Pontiac from the leathery, jangly lady’s bungalow to Dad’s sea-near studio apartment.
He slept on a pullout sofa bed in our one-roomer, and mid-August, when the alarm clock woke me for work, I saw the stupid, pretty thing on the floor beneath his blue jeans. In the sullen light of dawn, I made out an inscription engraved on it. My father’s initials in elegant sans serif. No RAF boys, of course, but another name for sure, a new engraving, commissioned up on Girard Avenue, TOBY. I remembered the hours we’d spent together hunting for that costly goddamned thing, Toby’s helpful suggestions where next to search: the beach, Dad’s suit pockets, maybe it had fallen out of Dad’s trouser pocket into one of the shoes in his closet?
That morning was awful, and I want to pull a curtain across it. Duke was coming “home” from Chula Vista that afternoon; I was meant to pick him up after work. I didn’t know what we’d all do, where we’d live, how we’d sit together in a room, how we’d look at one another, what in the world we were supposed to do now. What I knew for sure: Toby hated us both, his father
and his brother. I knew why he hated the one, but not the other. Now I think I know all I’ll ever know about that aspect of that summer, and all I want to say to Toby is. Forgive me. Even though he has pardoned me, and himself, just this last time. Forgive me.
I fetched Duke; he raged at Toby. We sent my brother home to my mother on a bus. As bad as it was between my father and me, after Toby left it got worse. My father wasn’t allowed to drink — all that medication — but of course he drank. How many days did the nightmare last? Few, I think. He tried to talk me into staying with him instead of going to Turkey. I managed not to laugh in his face. My work at Astro was a mercy, got me out of the apartment. My infamy on the beach was a joy, got me away from him. And I’d invited a couple of visitors, Princeton friends. One was coming up from Mexico in a Cadillac hearse, the other, from whom I’d borrowed the money to rent our apartment, was in the Navy, coming to San Diego to join his aircraft carrier. I’d paid him back; breaking a Wolff family tradition, I’d repaid all my debts to friends that summer.
While my erstwhile classmate with the hearse was visiting, Duke was arrested in San Diego. For a wonder, he wasn’t drunk and he wasn’t up to mischief. He was buying breakfast food at a late-hours store and he’d made a U-turn in my Ford. He’d stuttered when the policeman stopped him. They took him downtown. It went hard on him. By the time my friend and I arrived in the hearse, they were ready to let him go. This was the old police station, gone now, surrendered to gentrifleation down near Seaport Village. Back then it had a holding tank, and my father was in it, stone terrified. Before they let him go, they checked with Sacramento. They got back a complicated story. I’ve told it in The Duke of Deception, but let me say it went very hard on him, grand theft auto for the Abarth-Allemagne roadster in the desert, burned and sandblasted by a desert storm. My father wanted me to go bail for him, but he wouldn’t promise to show up in court or even to stay in California.
I didn’t go bail; I went to Istanbul.
Then was then. I try to explain to my wife, to my sons. They try to understand, and they’ve done a good job of it. The only way I know how to explain is on the page. It’s a bitch getting the tone right. Now, writing this, I feel jumpy again after many years of feeling a warm embrace of resignation. That’s okay. These shifts aren’t spurious, I believe. Family stories are always fluid, and to be emotionally exact is to be inconsistent. Toby and I have talked a lot about this. We’ve talked a lot about a lot. We talk all the time, and as good as a friendship between brothers can get, that’s how good I think ours is. When I told him I’d found the apartment where we spent the summer of ’61, he seemed interested enough, but not too interested. When I told him I’d taken snapshots of the apartment, he didn’t ask for copies.
He stole a trinket that summer, my father stole a car. Stealing. Jesus, Princeton had an honor code, it seemed like a really big deal, where could stealing lead? Where did it send my dad? That pal who loaned me money? The one I’d invited to visit just about the time my dad disappeared into the system and I fled to Asia Minor? He stole my dad’s best shoes. He told me this in an expensive automobile driving to a fancy dinner party at a gentlemen’s club on Beacon Hill in Boston. We were purring along in his Mercedes, snug in our navy-blue topcoats and leather gloves and cashmere scarves. It was snowing. I had mentioned a few hours earlier to my old chum that I’d been back in La Jolla after all these years, back to the apartment at Playa del Sur. He’d seemed uncomfortable to hear this, and I understood his discomfort to stem from the disgrace visited on my family name that summer. “I’ve been in that apartment,” my friend said.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “You were supposed to visit me there, but then Dad went to jail and I went to...”
“...to Istanbul,” my amigo finished. “No, I’ve been there." “I don’t believe...”
“Hush,” he said. “Let me tell you.”
We were purring along the Charles now, and the headlights from cars on Storrow Drive dimly lit the black water. Big wet flakes flew at our windshield; the dash glowed greenly. The car was heavy and solid; we were heavy and solid. My friend had been successful in business, investing prudently but shrewdly the inheritances of people who trusted his judgment and honor. His voice was measured. He told me. He told me how he had got the landlord at Playa del Sur, who didn’t yet know I’d run out on him just after running out on my father, to let him in. How he had waited there. How he had had a beer or two from the fridge, and then a glass or two or three of the Wild Turkey I was drinking back then. How he had listened to the record player. How he had stretched out and taken a nap. How he had wanted to walk down to the beach, but the landlord wouldn’t give him a key. How he had waited and waited for me to come back from work. How he began to feel pissed off, put-upon. How he couldn’t wait any longer; the Saratoga was cruising west; he was due aboard. How he had noticed my dad’s shoes in the closet, really nice shoes, beautifully cared for, church shoes, dark brown cap-toes. How something — boredom? — had urged him to try those shoes on his own feet. How they had fit as though they were made for him. How he had stolen them.
“And there was a jacket, too. Nice tweed job. I don’t think it was your jacket. I didn’t recognize it from college.”
“What color?” I wanted to know.
“Greenish, heather, I guess you’d call it. Nubby but soft, a really nice tweed sport coat.”
“It wouldn’t have been mine,” I said. “I didn’t own a jacket that fits that description,” I lied.
“How about that,” my old friend said.
“What the hell,” I said, “that was a long time ago.”
You see, in Boston, so far from Windansea that winter night, at last, I was finished with all this, who stole what from whom, who borrowed and who paid, who was owed what. I’m finally at the end of all that. This time I mean it. This time, again, I really mean it.
Geoffrey Wolff, prolific essayist and literary critic, directs the graduate fiction-writing program at the University of California-Irvine. He is the author of the best-selling The Duke of Deception: Memories of My Father, set in part in San Diego, and Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby, a biography of the Lost Generation poet and publisher. His novels include The Final Club, A Day at the Beach, and The Age of Consent, recently released in paperback.