Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion.”
“Hollow Men,” T.S. Eliot
On a warm Long Island summer night in 1979 about seven months before my father unexpectedly died of a heart attack, he sent me to bear witness to a ritual murder. What’s more I enjoyed it. In fact I rooted for the killer, who was a young man not too much older than me. He brutally hacked his victim into pieces with a razor sharp machete. Each time the blade tore into his victim’s flesh, I cheered. “Kill the old man. Kill him”
As usual, my father occupied his familiar spot on the living room couch. He spent nearly all his time at home there. He mostly slept. Sometimes he read, listened to opera, watched TV and nearly always had a Lucky Strike in his lips.
No one else was home that night. My mother worked the three to 11 shift in the ICU department of Brunswick Hospital. My grandmother and sister visited with my aunt who lived around the corner. My brother was in Virginia serving in the Navy. I was downstairs lying on my bed reading.
Around eight o’clock my name thundered from upstairs. “Bobby.” the “o” came out like the “a” in father with a slight drawl. The “y” like Fonzie’s “Ayyy.”
I dropped my book and ran up the stairs, “Yes dad?”
Carvel is a New York-based soft ice cream franchise that was fixture in every strip mall from the East River to Montauk.
He didn’t care whether I wanted ice cream. He just didn’t feel like driving. I hated him for his lack of control over his appetites. Or, who knows, maybe that was the only way he could be nice.
I stuffed my feelings into their cage and replied. “No thanks. But I’ll go to the store for you.”
He reached under his prodigious belly into his trouser pocket, withdrew a worn leather billfold, and handed me a $20 bill. “I want a chocolate nut sundae with vanilla ice cream.” Like I didn’t know.
20 minutes later I stood at the couch’s edge handing him a Styrofoam cup full of ice cream along with his change.
He took the sundae. “Have you seen Apocalypse Now?” he asked.
Not sure how to answer, I meekly replied, “No.”
The question seemed odd. He didn’t go to the movies. At least I thought he didn’t. I know he didn’t go with my mother. Then I remembered yet another one of his uncontrollable appetites—this one far less benign than ice cream.
Anger flashed. He must’ve seen it with his skank mistress”
She was supposed to be a secret. But late one night several years earlier my brother and I and saw him in her car in front of our house. We tacitly agreed never to speak of it.
Concealing my father’s sins seemed the best way to avoid hastening the dissolution of our family. Bearing the secret had consequences. At 17 my brother ran away and joined the Navy. I gained 60 pounds and nearly flunked out of college.
“Go see it,” he ordered. “It’s fantastic,” This time emphasizing the first syllable and sounding the “a” sounded like “Ann.”
Proffering his change, I told him, “No thanks. I don’t like violent movies.”
He waved off the comment and the change, “See the movie.”
“But there’s no one to go with,”
He reached for the Newsday lying on the coffee table and thumbed to the Living/Arts section. “There’s a nine thirty show at the Lowes in Bay Shore.”
“But dad,” I protested.
Anger and frustration swelled. Fear contained it. Years of beatings and bullying taught me to suppress my feelings. So I went and I lied to myself. “Pick your battles.”
Director Francis Ford Coppola and John Milius, who co-wrote the first two Dirty Harry movies collaborated on an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s literary masterpiece Heart of Darkness. Instead of a European steamboat captain and ivory trader named Marlow sailing up the Congo to retrieve a lost soul, the U.S. government ordered a Special Forces captain named Willard to journey up a fictional South East Asian river named Nung to “terminate with extreme prejudice” a Green Beret colonel named Kurtz who’d gone native.
The movie faithfully captures the essence of Conrad’s story. It argues against imperialism and the fundamental hypocrisies of our culture. It paints a stark portrait about the flimsy mask of civilization worn by men. Bereft of checks and balances, we revert to the brutish and unflinching laws of nature.
My father dropped out of high school at 17 to become a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne. Two years before that he tried to enlist to fight in the Korean War. He fooled the Army or more likely they didn’t care. His parents had to drive to Fort Dix in New Jersey and drag him home. My grandfather, Nathan, who was a small time bookie and loan shark, didn’t seem to mind. My grandmother gave him a vicious beating. Dreams of glory and adventure had to wait. So, I doubt my father read Heart of Darkness.
The novella did not inform my father’s motivation. Whereas, my English professor assigned it because Conrad occupied a hallowed slot in the cannon of dead white guys deemed essential to understanding the transition from 19th Century literature to Modernism, my father sent me to watch to the movie to give insight into his situation and to presage the climax of our own version of the Oedipus Rex.
At the time, I thought of the movie as nothing more than Ignus fatous, foolish fire, flickering on a silver screen. I judged my farther harshly for bullying me into going, for his many sins venal and mortal, for his lack of education, and for is inability to express himself.
I had no compassion for his situation. Men like my father, sons and grandsons of dirt-poor Eastern European peasants still carried the attitudes and burdens of institutionalized poverty and serfdom. When young survival required the ability to take pain. When grown up, existence required the ability to inflict pain. They worked to survive and aspired to define themselves by their jobs. They expressed themselves through their actions. They taught by example rather than by story.
I arrived home close to midnight. The empty Styrofoam sundae cup, stained black with rivulets of chocolate syrup lay, forlornly on the coffee table like a decapitated head carelessly tossed next to its body. My father indolently lay beside it. Every lamp in the house burned brightly in contrast with the movie’s lurid world of shadow. Low-key lighting hid Marlon Brando’s swollen body and shrouded Kurtz in mystery. High key lighting revealed everything. A Lucky billowed smoke from an ashtray.
Moments before Kurtz’s death we hear him reciting T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men.” “In this last of meeting places /We grope together /And avoid speech /Gathered on this beach of the tumid river.”
Clearly Apocalypse Now contained something he wanted me to learn. He had a lifelong relationship with violence and the law of the jungle that began with an abusive mother and father who supported his family with illegal gambling and usury. It played itself out in the Army and later when he joined New York City Police Department. As a rookie, he got a taste of war when his duty required him to shoot and kill an armed robber. He associated with the corrupt cops and worked in some of the toughest neighborhoods in the City.
Except for our genes, we had little common ground because he shielded my brother and me from the brutality of growing up poor in the Bronx. It made for a troubled relationship because his ideas about being a man revolved around the ability to fighting and domination. He had no respect for me because I cried easily and preferred to run rather than fight.
Driving home from the screening, I keenly observed how Marlow and Kurtz stood for the late Victorian man grappling with a rapidly changing world, Willard and Colonel Kurtz symbolized the 80’s permutation of the American man: neurotic and self-absorbed, victim and perpetrator, dissolute men adrift without no moral compass. It was an analysis I’d like to think would have delighted my professors.
“You were right dad. It was a good movie. Thanks for the treat.”
I fumbled over a few platitudes as his crystal blue eyes probed me for signs of enlightenment. They held me seemed to ask, Are you here to kill me? I averted my glance.
What passed for a smile brushed his lips.
“There’s some change left,”
“You keep it.”
I bent down and kissed him on the lips. “”Night dad.”
He rolled toward the back of the couch in a peaceful easy motion and closed his eyes. All these years later, Eliot’s words bubble up, “Shape without form, shade without colour, /Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” (“Hollow Men”).
End of Part I