My Father...

Fathers and sons, does this ever end?
  April 22, 2003

…studied flying in Latvia for a year.  He dropped out of the aviation school to become an artist.  He has two fond memories from that year.  One is getting so drunk that he started hallucinating tiny green devils hopping on and off the kitchen table.  The other is accidentally crashing a nudist beach party.

…has a limp because his left hip is shot.  He fell off a rock one winter night many years ago, in the army.  (He was promptly conscripted upon leaving college.)  The ground was cold and he couldn’t walk; help came only after several hours.  The chilled fracture stang a little but then seemed to get better.  Shortly thereafter, the lining in his joint began to melt away.  Now he hisses with pain every time he takes a step.  He used to tell me how after a month in the army, green weakling recruits were moulded into hardened soldiers that radiated torrid, unstoppable health; at sunup in Siberia, they would break through the ice crust in the sink and throw bucketfuls of burning cold water over themselves to watch it turn to steam on their invincible skin.  He used to be invincible, too.  In the early 80s, his worsening hip condition had resulted in a year-long hospital stay with a wrong diagnosis; he lay in bed trapped in a cast while the joint lining continued quietly to rot.  His aunts and uncles took that opportunity to revenge my parents’ unapproved marriage.  There was some property father inherited when my grandparents passed away; the family gave it to his younger brother, a drunk ne’er-do-well.

…is an artist.  After leaving the hospital, he went to Moscow for five years to study at the famous Stroganoff School.  He applied five times before they accepted him.  While in school, he would come to visit my mother and me every now and then.

…was one of the legendary first Arbat street portraitists (a dead breed).  As Gorbachev’s Soviet Union crumbled, he sat on Moscow’s only all-pedestrian mall surrounded by Hare Krishnas, lunatic poets, prostitutes, fellow artists, friendly (if greedy) cops, underground peddlers of currency, pot, smut, banned books and rare vinyl records,—and he drew portraits, cheaply, well, fast, for fat complacent foreigners and the first, still bashful, crop of the local nouveau riche.

…described Moscow dumpsters to me once with sparkles in his eyes.  “Especially in the city center, the old apartments are bursting with valuables,” he told me.  “The old geezers who live there don’t even know what treasures they have.  They think they’ve got a worthless rickety chair gathering dust in the corner, and so throw away an eighteenth-century carved antique, the idiots!  Some of the stuff you find is just unbelievable.”  They say Moscow dumpsters aren’t what they used to be; the most you can hope for these days is a dismembered dead body.

…taught me how to tie the perfect knot on a tie.

…loves my sister more than me.  I was a disappointment to him, never the fearless son he wanted in atonement for his own yellow streak; never the soulful Russian vodka-steeped artist that would have been the next best thing after a fearless son; just an Americanized alien as he calls me now, with a calculator for a heart.  Every time I look in his eyes I see this distorted reflection, like in a funhouse mirror.  I don’t recognize myself in it but it makes me stare in fascination, and sometimes make a face.

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