My Father: A Life
by Justin E. H. Smith
The dolphin fish (Coryphaena hippurus) has no inner life, so its death can only play out on the surface of its body, in a spectacular display of multicoloured flashes. But where there is cognition, memory, emotion, where there is a man, the light show sometimes happens on the inside, a fireworks display of the soul’s contents, transformed and expressed in a way that the nursing staff will dismiss as hallucination, but which is in fact no less true than the life itself.
In the week leading up to Friday, September 2, 2016, I accompanied my father in his transition to death. I came back and he did not. I am not yet old, and was only there to help him across. But I am not yet fully back. I know things now that I did not know before, about him, about us, about the living and the dead, and about the category of being or of mental phantasm (what is the difference, really?) that the country folk call ‘ghosts’.
I always knew I would write about him. Though it may seem too soon, too raw, against protocol, to do so is the closest thing to filial piety I have in me. To do so is to honour him, who long ago vested his own dream of writerliness in me. He set up this very website over a decade ago; his final post to Facebook, in mid-August, was a review of my most recent book in The Nation. The hard drive of his laptop, which I have taken into my possession, is filled with fragments of creative writing projects, not least a folder with hundreds of files (including a home-made cover) contributory to a novel, entitled Bananaman, that would have been about the CIA and the United Fruit Company’s involvement in various Central American coups d’état, and about the creation of a certain popular peelable monoculture that my father somehow saw as key to understanding his American century. Bananaman will never see the light of day, but I think that at some point my father stopped expecting it would, and that, after some years of intergenerational competition, he could now just kick back, let me do all the work, and beam with paternal pride. So this is a coda to that, a necessary culmination of who each of us was for the other.
I arrived in Barstow, California, on Friday, August 26, and found him in the emergency room of the Barstow Community Hospital. I live in Paris, and so going to Barstow is supposed to be some kind of joke or supplice, but the truth is I love that isolated desert town, that dusty station of the ‘Mormon Corridor’. And this is not some affected European romance for the American West either. Route 66 is not a made-up place of songs and movies. It is the sort of place where my kin live and die.
I arrived there and found him dreaming, grabbing and handling the ridge of his blanket, as I would see him do repeatedly over the next week, talking in his sleep about used cars, odometers, leases, good and bad deals. He had been sent to the hospital from the veterans’ home, where he had lived since the early spring, due to his extremely low blood oxygen level. This was a sign of possible clotting, they said, but no clots could be found. So he drifted in and out of sleep, and we chatted. At one point he awoke, and called for a nurse, and asked for a spoon. What did he want the spoon for? For the ice cream. ‘What ice cream?’ I asked. He looked around, and said that perhaps he was still dreaming. Then the nurse came with the spoon, and he said: ‘At least the spoon’s real’.
This was the first gust of what would over the next days grow into a fierce storm of impressions of things that were not strictly speaking there. This was not, as I’ve said, a break with reality, but an intensification of it. We enjoyed talking about the ontological status of his visions. When birds and lizards were swarming around his room, and I asked him whether he really believed they were there, he insisted, ‘Well, I do think I am better than most people at noticing things’. He told me that during the night the hospital staff had sent six people into his room, ‘dressed as Japanese clocks’. He told me there was one of them out in the hallway right now. I looked at it, and told him I thought it was just a piece of medical equipment. He said, ‘I guess you’re right’. Later he looked at the light switch near his bed, and declared happily: ‘Look, they’re showing me 50 years ago in the navy!’ I nodded, still uncertain what he meant. Some minutes later he looked at the switch again: ‘Now it’s you kids when you were little!’ ‘Do you mean you can see these things in the light switch?’ I asked, and he said yes. ‘How do you think they’re doing that?’ ‘I gave them my e-mail address when I checked in’, he said, ‘so they must have gone into my hard drive and pulled out my whole life story’.
I recount these things because they are what we lived through together that week, in the liminal space between life and death, and because they were not, as might be supposed from a distance, horrifying or pathological. They were part of the natural calm and grace that, I learned, can make the state of dying into something truly distinct from both life and death.
But life comes first. Kenneth Von Smith was born on October 2, 1940, in Los Angeles, and grew up east of that city in West Covina. His father, Von Smith, was born into a Mormon community in Sugar, Idaho, and his mother, Bertie Mae Cruce, was born in Monticello, Arkansas. He told me that ‘Von’ had been a misspelling of ‘Vaughan’, and that while living in Nice (which he always called ‘Nice, France’) his middle name was, to his great amusement, often mistaken for a nobiliary particle. I was never close to Grandpa Von, and was always somewhat frightened by him. I recall numerous exclamations one might expect from a reactionary grump, as for example when an ad for the NAACP came on TV, and he muttered, ‘How about a National Association for the Advancement of White People?’ I would not bring this up right now, were it not for the way it fits with my own story of my father and his death. Ken once told me that Von’s very last words to him, as he lay in his Kaiser hospice-care room in Sacramento in 1991, with the TV blaring as usual, were none other than these: ‘You know, that Arsenio, he’s alright’. Grandpa was perhaps wrong in the particulars, but right in the broader gesture towards racial reconciliation he was, in his own way, attempting.
Much of my father’s identity was wrapped up in affirming that Arsenio is indeed alright, where by ‘Arsenio’ we understand not Mr. Hall of long-forgotten American talk-show fame, of the New Jack moment that will mean nothing to the present generation, but rather all the affable goodhearted men of all races who, like him, just wish to live and be free and trade tall tales and relish small pleasures. My father was white, but he wanted no association that would represent him in this. He belonged to an imagined universal brotherhood, masculine, no doubt, but resolutely cosmopolitan. He often passed blanket judgments to the effect that this or that marginalized minority group consists of ‘good people’. He spent time in the South of France and reported that the Maghrebins there are honest, hard working, and friendly; he retired to Mexico and repeated the same stock phrases of praise for the Indios at each conversation. Arsenio, for all possible Arsenios, is alright.
My uncle for his part, my father’s younger brother, seems to have drifted off in the other direction, toward the ideology of white supremacy. I have no contact with him, and will not speak of him here. I will not speak of him, except to say that in recent years it has come to seem to me that each of us, in our own way, is a spark from the same flint. We have the same bug of race running through our American blood, back to Grandpa Von and no doubt back before him still, to I can only imagine what sort of eccentric firebrand men named Orville or Cletus with great moustaches, with the preacherman’s current running through them and quickening them, who believed and declaimed, variously, that blacks and whites should be sent to live on separate continents, or should be forced to marry and generate a future crop of raceless babes. We have each dealt with this legacy in very different ways, but in truth I take it we are all just articulating, with varying degrees of articulacy, our own versions of the Arsenio confession. To the very end, we chatter about, obsess over, and live and breathe the American matter of race.
It would be difficult to say what my father’s last words to me were; in a sense everything he said during that week was ‘last’. But one moment stands out in particular that I may as well designate as equivalent to Von’s Arsenio confession, though as it happens it had nothing to do with race. Looking at me from his hospital bed, Ken said: “Thanks for coming all this way. It’s good to have someone to turn to and to say, ‘So long, and thanks for all the fish’.” This was, most readers will know, not a hallucination, but an oblique reference to the fourth instalment in Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, which my father had lying about the house circa 1984, and which is one of the first books, nominally for adults, that I read. Other titles around at that time include Peter S. Beagle’s I See By My Outfit and Tom Robbins’s Still Life with Woodpecker, both of which I left untouched.
The allusion was hardly appropriate, as I’d done nothing remotely comparable, even by loose metaphor, to the bringing of fish. It really just showed how a simple phrase, like ‘So long’, can become fixed to a shared cultural reference, and how that reference can in turn flicker out, to the shared contemplative joy of the both of us, from the memory embers of his dying. The phrase ‘So long’, by itself, uttered on Thursday, September 1, showed, for the first and only time that week, that he knew what sort of embers these were, that he understood what was happening.
The rest of the week was spent completing small tasks, as if these held the key to immortality. On Friday evening, August 26, when at the emergency room they could find no clots, he was released to me, to be taken back to his private living unit at the VA home. This was the beginning of a weekend together that still seems like it could not have really happened. He could barely straighten his legs, yet somehow we took a trip to the Barstow Wal-Mart together. I drove right up to the entrance, and left him in the car while I went to find one of those reduced-mobility carts that come in so handy at that establishment (‘Maximum One Passenger, or 550 lbs.’, read a sign attached to it). He drove it around that Wal-Mart with such purpose! His main objective was to find a ‘grabber’, that is, an extensible 3-foot-long bar, with a trigger on one end, and a sort of artificial hand on the other. This would be good, he explained, for picking up things around his room. It would solve the problem of his ever-shrinking range of motion. We also bought a box of Special K and a gallon of milk, both of which would go unopened, and we would have bought some cans of Dennison’s chile con carne, if they had not run out. At the check-out counter a small girl sitting in the seat of her mother’s shopping cart found herself facing my father in his reduced-mobility cart. He made a clownish face, and she began to cry. He shrugged. I could tell what it was she was seeing.
I don’t know much about the West Covina years, other than that a neighbour boy’s mother used to coerce him into imitating Woody Woodpecker, circa 1953, for her dullard son, and that around the same time Bertie bought him a white leather jacket that was in style and that he very much coveted– except that she could not afford the real thing, and so bought him a version in imitation leather that he, so as not to hurt her feelings, would put on on his way out the door, only to hide it in a secret spot in the garage each morning before heading to school.
My father joined the navy in, I think, 1959, a move that seems to have been the primary cause of his subsequent class mobility. He was deemed intelligent by the relevant officials with their tests, and he was taught some Russian and a bit more Mandarin Chinese. At the Barstow hospital, with chapped lips and weakened lungs, he continued to attempt to speak Chinese with every employee who might possibly understand it. ‘What dialect do you speak?’ he asked Doctor Ellen Chao. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t understand what you’re saying’, she replied in slightly accented English. ‘He’s asking you what dialect of Chinese you speak’, I interposed. ‘Oh’, she said, unimpressed. ‘Mandarin’. I learned very quickly that nurses and orderlies are much more willing than doctors to indulge an old white man’s interest in their cultural backgrounds.
In basic training the drill sergeant once barked: ‘You’ve been wearing the same underwear for a week now, it’s time to change. Smith, you change with Jackson; Jackson, you change with Sanchez…’ On another occasion, I have it from a reliable source, a fellow enlisted man defecated something that took the shape of a question mark.
After basic Ken did something involving the transcription of Communist Chinese radio transmissions, stationed, I believe, somewhere in the Yellow Sea. Later he was made a journalist, and edited the South China Sea Daily News, a military newspaper. He learned some Tagalog and was sent to the Philippines. He claims to have once been shot at in a bar there by a band of paramilitaries he identified as moros, which, he says, or said, was the name used to refer to jihadists there long before they were in the international news. The Asia-Pacific region was his first opening to the world beyond the Mormon Corridor of the American West (he did not grow up a Mormon, as Von wanted nothing to do with religion, but as a cultural-geographical designation, this term has more salience than most Americans know). After his discharge, in the late-1960s in San Francisco, he would frequent the Beijing-sponsored bookstore and buy pamphlets with titles like The Chinese Writing Reform. He hoped to be the first Western journalist allowed to enter Mao’s China.
He was, by vocation, a journalist, and a photojournalist, with work published, by the end of the 1960s, in Time and Newsweek. He interviewed Jimmy Stewart and Hubert Humphrey for the Guam Daily News. But I am getting ahead of myself (and how could one not get ahead of oneself, attempting to recount all the worthwhile tales, told over 44 years, from a life of 75 years?). In the early years of that decade, just out of the navy, Ken returned to California to his parents’ home in Lancaster, a town not unlike Barstow in the high desert northeast of L.A. There he became a distant friend of Frank Zappa (1940-1993), and a roommate of Don Van Vliet, otherwise known as Captain Beefheart (1941-2010). Here is how my father relates the story of this friendship (this is from a Word file I found in his hard drive):
I first met Don when we were 15 years old. My family had moved to Lancaster, California and Don lived next door. Neither of us bothered to go to school much and we would spend the day just talking and listening to music. Frank Zappa was a good student and attended class every day, then would often drop by some afternoons.
I joined the Navy at 17. When discharged three years later, I returned to Lancaster. Alex St. Clare and I rented the house across the street from the home of Don’s parents — Granny Annie’s house. Fun times.
Even though neither Don nor I had much formal schooling, we had both independently been reading short stories by Aldous Huxley. A half-century later I still think it is extraordinary that two high school drop-outs with no predictable future would be discussing Huxley’s short story “The Gioconda Smile”.
Mentioning Huxley is reason enough to tell a story — rather, to correct a story.
After finishing my Navy tour, I got a job as a reporter, editor and all-around flunky at the small daily newspaper in Lancaster. One of my tasks was to skim the weekly real estate transactions looking for something, anything, of interest.
One week I noticed that Aldous Huxley had bought a home in the desert, about 20 miles from Lancaster. I mentioned this to Don, who was then selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners door-to-door (he was a very good salesman). Don suggested we drive the following afternoon, a Saturday, to Huxley’s desert home. As good luck would have it, Huxley himself answered the knock on the door.
Don explained that he was a vacuum cleaner salesman, but what prompted our visit is that we both liked his writing. No sale was made, but Huxley was polite and we chatted for a couple of minutes.
So, decades later, Don was on the David Letterman Show and he was asked about the Huxley visit to pitch a vacuum cleaner. “I told him this thing sucks,” Don said to Letterman. Don had a genius manner of embellishing his stories. I was there and I did not hear that being said. Further, I don’t believe that slang sense of the word “suck” existed in the early 60s. But, it is still a good story.
I saw Don fairly often until we were about 30, then less often until our early 40s.
I don’t know how much of this is true. I do know that my father was upset when Zappa died, and when Beefheart died, and on both occasions he mentioned how short life is and how you should not go too long without contacting old friends, lest they slip away for good. There is an ingenious TV commercial for Beefheart’s 1970 album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby, which is avant-garde in a way that my father certainly was not, but which, in its simple and nonsensical recitation of Southern California toponyms evokes for me Ken’s essence and history more fully than any other documentary source ever could.
This story also reveals something important about my father and his friends. He had a ton of them, but they did not so much constitute a stable as a parade. They passed through his life like water, some grew alienated due to debts or slights, perceived or real, some just moved on. Late in life his most enduring friendship, with the writer Joe Bageant, seems to have derived its staying power principally from the fact that Joe himself died in 2011. Ken devoted considerable energy over the past five years to keeping Joe’s reputation, as a chronicler of working-class white American life, alive, both editing the 2012 collected-works volume, Waltzing at the Doomsday Ball, and maintaining the website www.joebageant.net. It is hard to say what will happen to Joe’s memory now, or why Ken was so committed to preserving it. Judging from the contents of his hard drive, it seems to me that Ken would have liked to do what Joe Bageant did, to have found a voice similar to Joe’s, but for reasons I will get to soon enough was prevented from doing so by a concern to avoid antagonism, a desire to get along with everybody, to the extent possible. He preferred, or a big part of him preferred, to work behind the scenes, to cultivate and encourage the voices of others, including not just Joe’s, but also my own. In part this had to do with genuine interest in others, in their thriving, but also with a pessimism, emerging over the final third of his life, about the usefulness of political debate.
By the end of the 1960s Ken had taken advantage of the GI Bill and completed an MA in sociology at the University of San Francisco, where he was required to take more than one philosophy course taught by old Jesuits. He was never religious himself, he spoke mockingly if lovingly of his neighbour at the VA home who went to chapel every day. But he also averred to me a number of times that he was impressed by Thomas Aquinas’s argument to the effect that there must by a Prime Mover if there is to be any motion at all. Other intellectual reference points included Orwell, Mencken, Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Gustave Le Bon’s The Crowd. For years he sought to give his copies of these books to me, as an expression of his commitment to ‘getting down to just two suitcases’. I never wanted them, and never recognised them as having anything to do with my own personal canon. I also resented any suggestion that my aspiration to the life of a writer had anything to do with him, or that I was in self-imposed exile in France for anything like the same reasons. I was doing things the right way, and not just dabbling. But now I can’t, for the life of me, understand what was so important about this distinction.
Photographic evidence shows, as we move out of the 1960s, a transition from a lean, boyish, and clean-cut fellow into a fairly excellent exemplar of the wide-faced, corduroyed, 1970s moustache man. Some pictures show him overacting the part, like the one above, in which he seems to be posing as a bit-part player from All the President’s Men. By the middle of that decade the home computers began to show up, with giant suction cups into which he stuck the phone receiver, and dialled up some sort of pre-Internet entity called ‘the Source’. There was a Datsun 280zx, and there was an unbroken chain of Vantage cigarettes. There were some cassette tapes in a box: Blood, Sweat, and Tears; Fleetwood Mac; Jim Croce; Charles Wright and the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band. I don’t recall anyone ever listening to them, but they had to have got there somehow.
My sister was born in 1970 and I was born two years later. A decade or so after that, a divorce, and my father moves from the defunct chicken farm in Rio Linda that my parents had acquired from my maternal grandparents, into a sleek divorce condo in downtown Sacramento. A Sony CD player arrives, and a few CD’s: Flora Purim & Airto; Steely Dan; Pink Floyd’s The Final Cut; the Talking Heads’ Remain in Light. I listened to the last of these with his headphones on so thoroughly that I no longer need to hear it in order to hear it. Then a girlfriend arrived from the world of Sacramento political fundraiser dinners, a German ex-model, born post-war but with a name that would sooner place her in Grimm’s fairy tales, a former Virginia Slims billboard girl from the ‘You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby’ era who had taken to running the most painfully ’80s, most achingly local and small-time runway fashion events, with her mulleted son up on stage showcasing acid-washed denim to a Frankie Goes to Hollywood soundtrack. Out of this ridiculous world there emerged a ridiculous marriage, which lasted for a while, then ended without a trace.
The marriage did bring about an unexpected career development that would have some rather more lasting consequences. Ken recounts the story as follows (from an un-Googlable website he began to set up as an archive for students and journalists interested in this chapter of American state politics):
In 1986, I had leased a condo in downtown Sacramento. Two days after moving in, I learned that the unit directly above me was the home of Maureen Reagan and her husband Dennis Revell, and the unit next door to me was occupied by the Secret Service. My wife at the time had been a model, had owned a modeling school, and was then operating a casting agency and location scouting service. She and Maureen got along quite well, and the four of us occasionally socialized in Sacramento and in Los Angeles, where Maureen and Dennis had another home.
Both Maureen and Dennis were well aware that my political views were to the left of center on many issues. It was understood, but never discussed, that I did not vote for her father in his races for governor of California or for president of the United States.
One day, Maureen asked me to listen to a draft of a speech calling for the indictment of Oliver North and John Poindexter on charges of treason. I listened and offered some suggestions, but I also cautioned her that she would be hitting a hornet’s nest. She explained that North and Poindexter “had lied to the President” — her father. I asked what the lie was, but she would give no details, saying it would all be public some day. Some 25 years later, I can make a good guess, but it would only be a guess.
At the time, Maureen was talking to Republicans in Arizona about the expanding difficulties with Governor Evan Mecham. Maureen was then co-chair of the Republican National Committee and Dennis was involved in the promotion of Arizona for the Superconducting Super Collider. One day she called from Washington to say that she thought I should consider interviewing for the job of press secretary to Governor Mecham. The Doonesbury cartoons lampooning Mecham had just started running and I had read the news about Mecham’s troubles. I told Maureen that I did not think my politics would fit well in the Mecham administration. She disagreed, saying there needed to be more balance in the Arizona governor’s office…
I believed in supporting the ideal of fair and honest elections. I was greatly bothered by contrived political scandals and the subsequent coverage by sensationalist news media… [U]ntil age 50 I had idealistic, utopian expectations for the democratic process. I realize now that almost any political system, capitalist, socialist, whatever, would work if it were not for corruption and greed. But, expecting to find political bodies and governments free of corruption is foolish.
Now, I know that I can’t control political and diplomatic decisions so I don’t much care about them. I do follow some news about current events, but only to learn what might impact family and friends. However, I do care about history and I believe that attempts should be made to correct the facts.
Ken would later joke about his poor track record with US governors (from the hard drive):
In the past century only four governors have been indicted on felony charges while in office. I worked for three of them and the fourth was my uncle.
Here are the governors:
In 1965, I was an editor and reporter for a newspaper on Guam and one of the owners was Ricardo Bordallo. Ricky was later elected governor of Guam. It’s a sad story, but he was indicted and convicted on various charges, sentenced to federal prison, and committed suicide rather than being incarcerated.
In 1987, I went to work as Arizona Governor Evan Mecham’s press secretary. While in office, he was indicted on felony charges in what I regard as prosecutorial abuse. Mecham was later acquitted on all charges.
In 1989, J. Fife Symington was building a campaign staff in his campaign for governor of Arizona. I was invited to join the staff with the thought that I might pull in some of Mecham’s supporters. On my first day attending a staff meeting, Symington asked a half-dozen or so of us campaign workers if we had heard any negative rumors. I told him that the the local press was talking about Symington being “upside down to Dai-ichi Kangyo (a large Japanese bank) for a quarter billion dollars.” His face grew even redder than normal and he yelled, “You Mechamites are all alike” — and he fired me on the spot. Shortest job tenure I’ve ever had at just two hours. Symington was later convicted of financial fraud and thrown out of office.
The fourth is Lee Cruce, the second governor of Oklahoma. He was my great-grandfather’s half-brother. He was not charged with a crime, but there were threats of indictment and impeachment — mostly because he was married to a Cherokee chief’s daughter and that did not sit well with the power elite. Among other good deeds, Uncle Lee as governor commuted the sentences of all prisoners on death row.
After his term as governor, Lee Cruce continued his career as a lawyer and banker. In 1930, Cruce was defeated in the primary for the United States Senate losing out to Thomas Gore, the maternal grandfather of author Gore Vidal. So, if Uncle Lee had won the election, we would not have had to read and listen to Vidal’s oft-repeated stories of reading proposed legislation to his blind grandfather.
After Mecham’s impeachment the annual Christmas ornaments from the White House stopped arriving. Maureen and Dennis grew more difficult of access, and Ken’s future prospects in the GOP grew dim. Mecham, a Mormon and a former car salesman, died in a VA home in Phoenix in 2004 with advanced Alzheimer’s, looking, I’d imagine, much like many of the old men I saw decorating the home in Barstow. Ken moved back to Sacramento and went into the information-management business, littering CD-ROM’s everywhere throughout the early ’90s. First he lived in a respectable home in Roseville with his wife and worked for Transamerica, then soon after he lived in a trailer park in North Highlands with his mother and described himself as self-employed. There he sat in front of his computer by the sliding-glass door of the ‘mobile’, now permanently connected to the Internet, from day to night, for about five years. He started up websites, sold them, and accepted payment in stock options. He specialised in real estate and travel news. He visited dating sites for research, as they were, he explained, the very vanguard of the World Wide Web.
In 2000 I had just taken my first job at some university in the middle of nowhere in Ohio. He declared that he was not going to spend his 60th birthday sitting in a trailer with his mother, and so he set out from California to drive across the country, ostensibly to see his nominal employer at the company headquarters in Connecticut. It was while stopped in Oxford, Ohio, in my apartment, that he received a call from Hartford telling him that his services would no longer be needed. So he hung around for a month, then another month, driving his old BMW around town, listening to Moby on his custom car speakers, and watching Genghis Blues at home over and over again. He loved Paul Pena, the blind American blues singer of Cabo Verdean origin who became a champion Tuvan throat singer. Pena represented an ideal of authenticity and self-creation for him that he sought everywhere and that he was disappointed to find, generally, only in imperfect expressions.
He moved on from there to Little Rock, and found a cousin with a furniture store, where he worked for a while. Then he entered into some sort of business arrangement with an American based in Nice (France), and eventually left to stay in his new boss’s apartment there for what turned out to be five years or so. He never really learned French, but was very happy in his ‘expat’ world. He befriended two young women of Algerian origin, and until the end of his life recounted with pleasure the time they invited him to a family feast, where he met their conservative father, who signalled across linguistic boundaries his approval for this friendship on the grounds that, Ken supposed, he could see my father was an authentic and decent guy just like he was. Many fair-weather friends came and went. A high point was a party at the home of Sally Jessy Raphael.
The business relationship fizzled, Nice grew too expensive, and Ken took off for another expat community in Ajijic, near Lake Chapala in Mexico. Here there was some of the same crowd as in Nice, but also a harder edge: men with eye-patches, scarred Vietnam vets, and the ever-present spectre of drug violence. I visited him there twice, in 2009 and 2011. He complained that it was increasingly hard to find people to talk to, that all the old ‘gringos’ just sat around and drank until they died. No one was interested in anything important. But what about writing? He would have liked to write about important things, but was unsure of himself. He listened to podcasts from questionable people, the sort who tell you to stock up on gold, who speak ominously of ‘The Fed’, who don’t like at all what’s happening in Washington. Behind all of this suspicion there was also a humanism: he was anti-war, he hated the invasion of Iraq, and drone attacks on children.
He wanted to write about politics, but ever since Arizona, and perhaps before, he had had a sense that it is futile to even try, that everyone in the news, or in a position of influence, is a bullshitter, while everyone who speaks the truth is ipso facto on the margins. Gustave Le Bon already understood that crowds are mad, and if you have managed to drum up support for your own view, all you have really done is generated a crowd. (‘You seek followers? Seek zeroes!’ Nietzsche said.) Best to just stay quiet, and to try to be kind. Mexicans will smile back, if you smile at ’em. Mexican women will ask you to hold their babies for them when they go into the store. Good, honest, authentic Mexico!
In December, 2015, Ken’s pain could no longer be written off as a pinched sciatic nerve. His doctor in Ajijic had long ago lost his license to practice in the United States. They were friends, of course, but friends can’t detect each other’s metastatic prostate cancer. So he came back to the US, to a veterans’ hospital in San Bernardino County, not far from where he grew up. They figured out what was wrong, and soon he was moved out to a nursing care home in Redlands, and then to another one in Yucaipa. There was no one to talk to. An old lady drove around in a reduced-mobility cart adorned with plush-toy cats. She wouldn’t allow you to greet her until you’d greeted each of the cats individually, and preferably by name.
He applied to move to the VA home in Barstow, where he arrived in April of this year. It was hard to find people to talk to, but that was no reason not to be kind. There was an old guy, again, in a reduced-mobility cart, who had had a stroke, who kept repeating the same two phrases in Tagalog, which, he then went on to explain, without fail, ‘is the national language of the Philippines’. There was a man with long white hair who had worked as a Baha’i missionary in Venezuela (to whom I gave the books I had written that were left on Ken’s shelf). There was a Trump supporter, whom Ken liked to greet, after which he would say to me with amusement: ‘That’s the Trump guy’. And there were the kitchen workers, to whom he would say, ‘Hola! ¿Cómo estás?’ And they would say: ‘Your Spanish is so good!’ And there was the roadrunner that would dart past the window of his residence unit every now and then, that he once saw swallowing up a lizard before disappearing into the desert. He said he saw it when we were driving back from Wal-Mart, just before sunset on Saturday, August 27, but I do not know if it was really there.
This is a trace of the lingering glow of my father. Incomprehensible, here, is the multitude of things worthy of being related, of things committed to memory, of things invented and recounted as true to those of us who weren’t even born yet. Incomprehensible, the vividness of the life-show in the light-switch that played out at the boundary between life and death. Incomprehensible, now, the absence of the once-living, the way his memory lingers as if it were itself a being, as if it were itself alive.
Crossposted with jehsmith.com