By: Zachary Amendt
It’s a nuts life, too nuts for memoir. Any sense we make of it is made not by immersion but by piecemeal, by slumming and delving. By hearsay.
Some guys are always bridesmaids. It is unbearable to mention who we used to be: Academic Decathlon co-captain, back-up catcher, runner-up in the balloting for Prom King.
Our formative years are a past that is to be plumbed, not excavated. It needs unearthing without inventory. Any understanding of it belongs with the shards, the bones.
Childhood was not many things. It was not right, not ideal, not boring.
Dad’s rule was one minute of electronics revoked for every two garments left on the floor. We called him Perry. He was obsessed with laundry.
Perry ran the family oil business, a Texaco affiliate whose secretaries doubled as our babysitters. He was 185 lbs and thirty years old in 1983 when I was born and in the previous decade had voted for Nixon and then Ford. He drank.
The minutes weren’t much of a punishment and didn’t often amount to much as we had no electronics in the house, no Nintendo or Sega, just a console TV fixed on westerns and James Bond marathons. I was old at 9, an old man, an elementary-school geriatric; I did not share or draw between the lines; I liked underdogs and Hercule Poirot and I played video games at friend’s houses but I couldn’t lie when I returned home — I was a terrible liar, I blushed when Perry asked what kept me past the streetlights coming on (our curfew, no matter when the sun actually set). I was a dead-giveaway. I also self-officiated; I was Catholic; I would have administered my own whippings were I allowed it.
It was a childhood fascinating for what it was not: no tender melodic mother to sing in the kitchen whipping up vats of Spanish rice, no strong mother to pour full beers down the kitchen sink in Perry’s “wet” spells. (He did not think much of wagons.)
I was two when Mom left. She didn’t just leave, not innocuously, not without hospitalizing us. There were the three days we were unattended in our cribs, dehydrated and near-death and last I heard — this was 1990, I was 7 — Mom had enlisted and was in Desert Storm and I was on a soccer team named the Patriots, after the missile, after Saddam.
Reflecting on it now, as a motherless adult, it seems miraculous that I harbor no enmity for the gender: if anything I harbor the reverse: when I’m sick I ask to be coddled. The slightest sniffle or fever. I insist on soup, caresses, to be tucked in. It is pathetic, unmanly. It feels right.
Perry had refused to play Mr. Mom. When he turned forty he started smoking menthols, this at a point of not-too-far-off history, 1993, when forty was over-the-hill. He was not a Marlboro man — Marlboro Lights, maybe — but he was a man and his Pay-Per-View and barbecue proved it. He built carefully constructed charcoal pyramids. He applied himself in life, even considered re-marrying. It meant rejection, which meant drinking. I recall my awe of him and I did not understand then why he slept in until noon on Saturdays with all that college football on. He drank and the house and the oil company ran themselves into tailspins. He would not attribute any of this to his drinking, and from what I could see, vodka was only something he did in the morning, a way of spritzing up his OJ.
It was vodka or it was pints of Budweiser and shots of Gold. I held his forearm still as he brushed his teeth, held his fingers as he put in his contact lenses … a morning ritual, I realize now, as intricate and sad as the best ballet.
The first hemisphere of grief is an irrational fear: that whatever one’s parent dies from, that is, if it is habitual, then it must be in the blood.
I represent the fourth generation of a family of heavy drinkers — a statement that reads to me now as if I am part of a large Olympic delegation — and where the national average for longevity is increasing steadily, the Amendts’ is plummeting on a filial level.
Especially the males.
Though he respected family tradition, it peeved Perry that I was not his son so much as his father’s son — Leopold Christian, a decorated Air Corps bombardier, a distinguished liquor salesman and comic-book artist and once-recalled city councilman whose ashes I found in Perry’s closet — with whom I had so much in common according to everyone who knew Leo, including an irascibility when hungry and predisposition to running a room.
I believe Perry resented this but only mildly; it flattered him that, watching him fall, I would not follow suit.
But the environments were tempting, the settings. My first steady job was in a bar in north San Bernardino, Ye Olde Lamplighter, as a barback, stocking beers, mopping up vomit. The islands and fumes I was so fond of had been annexed: at this point Perry had lost the house, his dream house, into which he had wanted to move and settle since he was a boy, the company, everything.
I headed to the Lamplighter most days after school, after first buying Perry a schooner of Bud at Marie Callender’s, talking about the day’s achievements and the next day’s hopes and dreams.
I realize now that I did most of the talking.
“Just be careful,” Perry ventured one afternoon.
He gazed into his empty schooner, the foam, the dregs. It was ridiculous. I didn’t drink, and what’s more I said, I would never.
“But you will.” He was certain. “And when you do, watch out. It’s your genes. You can handle it.”
I didn’t experiment with it after this news, this revelation, not until years later, losing traction in college, girls, skipping classes and still getting A’s. I could not only not see my future but I would dispute that I had a future at all. And I had nothing to offer anyone that belonged to me except Perry’s warning.
If it wasn’t for Perry, I’d have started earlier. But this isn’t about my drinking, it’s about his.
Memories are constellations and they are also archipelagos. If I was a rock climber I would say they were foot-holds, and if I were an orphan I would say they were figments, fakes.
I found a swastika in Perry’s senior high school yearbook. It is in bold felt pen, giving the effect of not one but many swastikas, layered.
I wonder who. It could have been ‘Mushroom’ John Levine, who, leaving the movie theatre after Soylent Green, with Chuck Heston and Edward G. Robinson, for which Perry and throngs were queued up outside, jumped onto a balustrade and yelled, “It’s people,” spoiling the crux of the film. Or Larry Keyes, with whom he drove up to Perris Hill Park with a bottle of Ancient Age (the rot-gut, punch-to-the-gut, cringe-to-swill which Leo, for a decade, had so dutifully sold) and a transistor to listen to the draft lottery for Vietnam.
In Europe today these images and any allusions to them are taboo, banned, prosecutable. It was a joke, I think, not a hate crime. Our surname and its suffix — “Amen with a DT. I drink a lot,” Perry used to tell phone solicitors — is harsh, Bavarian and after vanquishing the Krauts — and earlier in the century, the Kaiser — it was unlikely anyone signing his class pages and Key Club photographs in 1971 thought twice. It was harmless graffiti. It was doodling.
I did not learn until later the details of my grandmother’s heritage. In a gallon-sized Ziplock Perry kept, along with several SS armbands (acquired, I’m sure, by some surreptitious commerce), the documents indicating that our ancestors were not the operators of the concentration camps, but the occupants.
Her name was Eloise, her maiden name was Glick and she married Leo and converted to Catholicism out of spite, Perry said. This news threw one of my childhood memories into harsh relief: I recalled my first day in parochial school, Our Lady of the Assumption, when we were asked to sketch out the manger scene with the Three Wise Men, and Eloise taught me to draw Stars of David in the night sky.
The Ziplock was as fragile as its contents. I examined the passports, stamped many times. Perry tried on the armbands.
“Don’t lose these,” he said. “They’re worth their weight in gold.”
Then again, Perry might have drawn the swastikas himself. He was the king of inappropriate puns, the son of a cartoonist.
It is Western tradition that the groom is not obliged to pay for his rehearsal dinner the night before his wedding. This is the joy of the groom’s father. Perry’s joy.
By 2010 Perry was in poor health. He was poor. The dinner was at Fidel’s in Rancho Santa Fe, CA, home of Bing Crosby, where the surf meets the turf. It was gourmet Mexican food, citing our old family dinners at La Talpa or La Paloma, where Travis would order a quesadilla, I carne asada, and Perry screwdrivers.
Half of the people invited to the rehearsal dinner had only heard of Perry, hadn’t met him and had only a vague idea of his profession. I said he was a retired oil executive (not untrue). He sat to my right.
“You have it, right?” Perry asked over appetizers. “The money?”
I did have it, a wad of hundreds amounting to several thousands. Perry sweat.
“You still have it?” he asked over the entree.
I had it. I had it together. I held him up during his toast. It was his dinner, he told everyone. It was only money. Everyone drink up, he said. Top shelf.
The next day Perry fell during our wedding. The flower girl was already headed down the aisle. He was bleeding from his forehead and we halted the ceremony and triaged him. Otherwise it went off without a hitch.
His was a specific poor health, it turned out. He had cancer in his lymph nodes, benign for several years, and when it spread and he sought radiation therapy he thought — we all thought — his loss of appetite and lethargy and all the other symptoms of the cancer having spread into his kidneys and liver until it was terminal – we all thought they were all very normal symptoms of healing.
They were not. He died in Palm Springs in the early evening on Election Day, 2012. I had flown down from Oakland and that night in my rented Chevrolet Spark with its great gas mileage and the sun setting at Morongo near the famed dinosaurs along Interstate 10 into which we crawled as kids, with Electric Six’s Gay Bar playing on the radio, my wife telephoned.
“I don’t want to make your day worse,” she said. My wife, my wife, my reason. “But Obama just took Ohio.”
It was time for my Karl Rove moment. Perry had just had his, he left this world as if (I think he’d appreciate the coincidence) he couldn’t bear another four years of the present administration.
I laughed at my wife. Ohio. It wasn’t possible. It didn’t just happen.
We donated Perry’s body. His remains arrived via FedEx. “Your special package,” it said inside.
There was no way Perry was staying in the closet. I promised myself this.
I asked around. Did anyone have any insights into where to put him?
One of his friends replied, “Wherever.”
I knew Perry had been fascinated by the Missions, and enamored of the few he had not seen, situated along Highway 101, the El Camino Real, from Santa Barbara on up to Sonoma. Sonoma is closest to Oakland, it is the birthplace of California, and as such it was an appropriate place to spread a man for whom California was an equivalent religion to the Church. So on a Saturday in January my wife and I buckled Perry up and went. Along the way we discussed the Bear Flag boys who held up Gen. Vallejo. We equated Junipero Serra, so fond of wine, to Robert Mondavi.
The Sonoma Mission – it is the youngest of all 23 of them, the northernmost – is on the town square. As we stalked for parking spots I realized I had no way of smuggling Perry in. His urn was conspicuously urn-like.
Fortunately we had stopped at Starbucks along the way. I dried out one of the to-go cups, a latte I think it had been, and dunked it in the urn until I had about a fifth of Perry. I put the lid on. In the Mission foyer a uniformed docent stopped me.
“No liquids allowed inside,” he said.
“You don’t want to see him without his coffee,” my wife said.
But drinks were allowed in the courtyard. It was small and crowded and I wasn’t sure where to pour my father out. In the cactus garden? the kiln? the stable?
I found a tree that looked good enough. No one was looking.
His ashes sort of burped out.
“At least you could have sprinkled him,” my wife said.
Perry was fine in my fingers. He fell out like quicksand. They don’t teach any of this. There is no finishing school for men. There is no graceful way.
We’re approaching the anniversary of Perry’s death. I still receive thoughtful notes from the company, ScienceCare, which cremated him after poaching his remains for medical research. One is an invitation to annual conference in Long Beach, to help survivors (is it fair to say ‘patrons’?) grieve and share photos.
I’m not sure why I’m going. Curiosity, perhaps. I feel a bit like the guy goading the last notes out of Mozart in Amadeus, or Mozart himself, nothing left in the tank.
I have gone through his pictures and tossed out the unflattering ones. In Long Beach I will tell the story of Perry’s death, and attempt a humorous anecdote about the social worker at hospice who, an hour before he died, offered me a steep discount if I used her family’s funeral service.
It is a question not of will, but of heart. I have a small vial left of Perry, and he hasn’t yet visited the Mission at Santa Barbara, an eminently picturesque final resting place where the Stations of the Cross are nailed to rows of fragrant, manicured olive trees.
It’s a plot of land that is called the ‘Olive Garden.’ Perry will love it. He’d die laughing.
+ Zachary Amendt’s East Bay story collection, STAY (Montag Press Collective), is out this summer.