In the last weeks of
the summer of 1930, when my father was fifteen and just starting the 10th
Grade, his father made him drop out of school to sell apples on the streets of
Philadelphia. Grandpa was an unemployed printer, working casually as a
chauffeur. Grandpa was also an alcoholic and a ladies’ man. He liked to play
the mandolin, sang well, moved easily in his lean body and was not unhandsome.
Since my father was a
good student who came from a poor family, the City of Philadelphia offered him
a stipend to stay in school: enough to buy books, lunches, pencils, paper.
Grandpa forced my
father to turn down the stipend. “You are the eldest,” he said to my stunned
father. “You are almost a man and must now in these hard times help support the
I saw my paternal grandfather
once. At my paternal grandmother’s funeral. July of 1960. I was ten. Who is
this tall ancient with my face? I wondered, as he strolled over smiling to
shake my hand, not having seen me since I was a baby. I gladhanded him back,
our smiles competing in broadness. Then my father stepped in. Bent down, told
me to go play with my cousins out in the atrium.
The next closest
encounter I had with Grandpa was one muggy Saturday afternoon in 1964 when the
phone rang. Dad picked up. Said a few words. Slammed down the receiver. Stomped
into the basement to emerge thirty minutes later drunk on the quart of vodka that
lived in the toolbox under his workbench.
A memorable – commenced
a few hours earlier than usual – Saturday drunken rampage ensued. The bathroom
door got broken. The dog kicked. The rec room light fixture destroyed. A hole
punched in the diningroom wall. The air filled with thunderous obscenities and
spouted threats to the tune of “I’m leaving you all!” “None of you will ever
get a dime!” “I’ll kill that goddamn dog if she gets in my way again!” Until he
collapsed naked at the foot of the livingroom couch a few hours after midnight.
Next morning, with
Dad in the bedroom snoring it off, Mom took me aside to explain that Grandpa
had called from a rented room in downtown Philly. He had said hi, then
announced he was putting on his bride, and for Dad to say hi to his new mom.
Mom (my mom) liked to provide reasons – other than alcohol – for Dad’s rages.
Often they were vague: “Your father had a headache last night;” or, “Your
father was awake last night worrying about work.” She seemed confident and even
oddly pleased to be able to offer such a specific excuse for that Saturday’s
rather extraordinary display of mayhem, cursing, insanity and wanton cruelty to
animals, children and spouse.
I don’t know much
about my family. Hardly anything, in fact. But I seem to come from a long line
of failed fathers. At the age of five I swore to myself I would never have a
child. The failure stops here; precisely where the abyss begins.
The last I heard of
Grandpa was three years later, in mid-1967, when Dad took me aside early one Sunday
afternoon, when he was still Dr. Jekyll sober, and said, “I guess you heard
your paternal grandfather died last week.” No, I hadn’t; but I’d learned early
in life always to present a pokerface and never to admit to anything when
dealing with those two thinly-disguised maniacs called Mom and Dad. “Just
wanted to let you know it’s true, he’s dead. Died without a cent. Buried at the
expense of the City. He died of cirrhosis. I guess you know what that means.”
I was seventeen. I
knew what cirrhosis meant. I made a silent wish Dad himself would immediately
drop dead from cirrhosis of the anus. When my blank face said nothing, Dad
frowned, muttered, “I was too busy at the office to fly up to Philly for the
He turned on his
heels. Creeped downstairs into the basement. Ostensibly to tinker with a
bookshelf he had hopes of someday building, using drawings from a POPULAR
MECHANICS. But, of course actually to suck on the bottle; although that day not
nearly so hard and fast as during the say-hi-to-your-new-mom phone call
aftermath. Meaning he didn’t come up swearing and screaming till nearly nine
that night, and gave it up for sleep a mere three or four hours later. No holes
punched, nothing broken; the dog and Mom threatened, but no contact worthy of
Not till I was fifty,
in the year 2000, six years after the death of my father, did Mom reveal to me
that the identity of her mother was unknown, both to herself and to the rest of
the surviving world. The shriveled old thing in a nursing home I foggily recall
meeting once at the age of three, was Mom’s stepmother. Shortly thereafter that
old thing died, and I have no memory of the funeral. Did we go?
The stepmother was a
polio victim, bedridden most of her life. Soon after she married my maternal
grandfather, he announced it was time to make a baby. The stepmother informed Gramps
(Mom taught me to call her father “Gramps,” to distinguish him from Dad’s
father “Grandpa”) she was too disabled to bear a child. Gramps, of Pennsylvania
Dutch stock, who had ended his formal education in the 4th Grade,
when he ran away from the farm to seek his fortune down in Philly in the early
1890s, quietly went out and got somebody else pregnant.
Toward the end of
November,1915, one of Gramps’ female cousins knocked on the door. Stepgramma
answered, and into Stepgramma’s arms baby-Mom the cousin thrust, saying, as she
beat the retreat, “This belongs to Fred.”
Well, it seems Fred
(Gramps’ real name) and Stepgramma then quickly got down to the business of
making my half-aunt, born about a year later. They told Mom she, Mom, was an
orphan. Mom had no problem accepting the bitter, demanding cripple as her stepmother;
but she waited even at Gramps’ deathbed for him to confess that he was her
biological father, she always having been Fred’s little girl: helping him work
on his car, toil in his greenhouse, dropping out of middle school to slave as a
retail clerk to help Fred carry the family through the Depression.
But Fred (Gramps)
never confessed. It was cleaner that way. Better an orphan than a whore-child;
better the adopter of an orphan than the supporter of a bastard. Germans are
funny folk, even when they grow up in Pennsylvania. That same perverse blood
runs in my unprocreating veins and I grew up in Virginia, where Germans are no
less sparkling clean and riddled with silent prevarication. See if you can
figure out what is not true here; after a lifetime of pokerfacing, bluffing and
double-bluffing, I’m not sure I can be of much help.
I was fond of my
paternal grandmother. In the late fifties she took the bus down to live with us
for a few weeks each summer. She rented a room in a sooty Philly neighborhood.
We never went there. Sometimes Grandpa lived with her, sometimes not. Grandpa
was never really relevant to any conversation whatsoever.
Nanna Shelton (Dad’s
mom, married to Dad’s father, that alcoholic skirtchaser “Grandpa”) was short
and stocky with a pug nose, small twinkling gray eyes and a face round and
wrinkled as the moon. A sparse mop of gray hair clung to her scalp. She laughed
a lot, smiled most of the time. Mom told me that was how come the wrinkles; Mom
was twenty years younger, frowned all the time, and also sported wrinkles; but
I of course never pointed this out. When Dad was drunk, driving us somewhere
and repeatedly swerving off the road – I wouldn’t point that out either.
Before I turned two,
my maternal grandfather “Gramps” died. I don’t remember the funeral, or, for
that matter, anything firsthand about Gramps. Just pieced together what here
and there I was told or managed to overhear. He stood under five feet tall. Weighed
200 pounds, most of it muscle. He worked in a congoleum factory and it was his
brag, up to a few months before his death from colon cancer, that no one could
shove him out of position once he took up a stance, stubby feet spread,
hawserlike arms crossed over his broad, stubborn Pennsylvania Dutch chest.
At the funeral in
late 1951, when Mom’s step-sister came forward to claim all of the inheritance,
one of Gramps’ brothers stepped up to verify that Gramps was indeed the father
of my mother, therefore the inheritance should be split between the two
surviving children of his blood. Not that there was all that much to divvy up.
The step-sister’s comment, confronted with this revelation: “And I thought my
father was a DECENT man!”
So, I come from a
long line of bastards, philanderers, drunkards, liars and loafers. I have no
idea who was my maternal grandmother; but it seems reasonable she was a prostitute.
Why not? Surrogate mothers were not professionally available in 1915; not
likely in Philadelphia, at least. But could not one pay a whore to bear a
A pretty sum would
doubtless be required; but Gramps Rotblut (Rotblut Mom’s maiden name) was the
best off of all of my impoverished forebears. He didn’t drink; or, rather, he
religiously drank exactly one beer at the end of each day (a German without a
beer is like a wheel without a hub). He put in eighteen-hour days, working
after the factory whistle in his self-built greenhouse, where he grew plants he
sold to the neighbors and at local markets.
Is it too great a
leap of faith to add to my list of titles and attributes that of Grandson of a
The slut skipped a
generation in my mother. Mom hated sex. Her greatest fear was that her youngest
born, her precious son, this asshole right here, would one day discover lust.
She wanted me to grow up to marry an obedient sex-loathing handmaiden who would
bear her grandchildren. But she feared I might discover sex too early; or –
television and magazines forbid – come to LIKE sex.
Being the grandson of
a whore on one side, and on the other the grandson of a womanizer, sex for me
was ever a downhill battle. I recall having my first orgasm when not yet four
years old. While shinnying up a silver maple sapling in our front yard. I
wasn’t trying to do anything in particular, just reach the top of the tree.
Then, as I humped up the trunk – swaying in an April zephyr – panties bloomed
behind my eyes, girl tongues invaded my ears. I didn’t need a parent to abuse
me sexually. I achieved the miracle all by myself.
Less than two years
later, already a practicing and accomplished masturbationist, I discovered
voyeurism. I became expert at talking the neighborhood girls into hanging
upside down from swingsets and dangling over benches and picnic tables the
better to study their panties. They thought they were just accepting a silly
dare; not a one of these four- and five-year-old victims ever suspected they
were fueling a furnace of illicit nighttime lust, when I lay awake in bed
exploring new ways to apply pressure to my groin so as to electrify the spine
with sufficient amperage to make my mind roar into an ecstasy of filth.
Here’s my keenest
memory of Nanna Shelton, the only grandparent I ever got to know as a live
human being: It was the summer of 1959, the year before she died in her sleep
of a heart attack, in a rented room up in Philly. She was staying in my
sister’s bedroom. I peeked in to make sure she was awake, because it was always
fun to have Nanna and her laughter and her offcolor jokes at the breakfast
She stood with her
back to me, wearing only wrinkled pink satin panties. Like an oversized flabby
fireplug with a faded flag draped around its middle. Still, they were panties –
HUGE panties. And, although she was the oldest living specimen I knew, also the
widest and the fattest, she was nonetheless a female.
I stood staring, till
she started to turn to grab her dress where she had it laid out on the bed, and
I vanished back into the hall, drawing the door silently to, taking along
another clip to file away for later use, although I was not sure at the time
and am to this day not exactly sure, how to ignite this granny fuel. Many more
volatile images were to come: PLAYBOY, PENTHOUSE, HUSTLER, internet porn. But
that gray oldlady bowl-cut head, thick short neck, broad shoulders, stout back,
short legs, wrinkled panties… they never vanish, never tarnish, never seem to
evoke anything, turn me on only to the vision itself.
The only thing my
father ever told me that his father told him, my intellectual inheritance, as
it were: Never carry a lazy man’s load. Meaning never carry more than you
comfortably can: you’ll make more trips to move the load, but you will feel
better at the end of the day and the load will have been more efficiently
I took this to heart.
I have traveled light: No family, never procreated, rarely, after leaving home
at the age of eighteen, saw my parents or any of my ghostly, tightlipped
In never carrying a
lazy man’s load, I have become a most industrious ghost: someone dead most of
his life, desperately striving to report back with the utmost clarity. Can I help
it if my dispatches so often resemble lies, contradiction, untruth? Well, if I COULD
help it, still I would not. Because I will always be that little boy
masturbating in the dark, titillating to orgasm in mandatory silence, while Dad
rages drunk through the house and the boy knows that the least rustle could
draw Dad to throw open the door, flood the small bed with light and…
my life the sudden wide effulgence has been my greatest fear, my fondest