Winter 02


Pieces of Papa




An excerpt from his forthcoming novel
The Persistence of Memory

     Dr. Vish recommended that I try to keep my memories of Father restricted to a handful of iconic images, that I should go through my memory as if sorting through a shoe-box of photographs and throw out those whose associations might be too painful or that were too obsessive in their detailed minutiae. (Fine to think of his flannel pyjamas, not fine to picture the threading on each of its six shirt buttons and the way the zigzag pattern was different on the sleeves than on the breast-front, how it all made him look like an elongated, taffy-pulled zebra, a white-African Buster Keaton with an imaginary yarmulke topping.) The army psychiatrist assigned to me at 1 Mil suggested something much the same, but I really did not pay him much mind. In fact, I hardly listened to him at all, being in that state of the returned soldier called “staring at the fokken wall.”
     To myself I call these canned recollections "Pieces of Papa," a label I did not share with my good doctor—yes, I was sometimes resistant, withholding—since he seemed always to read so much into jokes, a habit that destroys the pleasure of them. (That the unexamined life isn't worth living, doesn't mean the examined life is worth living either.) Did you hear the joke about the psychiatrist? How do you feel about it?

     Dad, being pre-post-Freudian, was not aware that jokes were a symptom of Minderwertigkeitsgefühl (trust the Germans to make ‘feelings of inadequacy’ into a single word, bulky and ponderous as a tank, intimidating enough to inspire the very condition it describes). He had not come across the notion that all humor was about disparagement and therefore a form of bigotry (self-directed humor, in this light, is projected disparagement). And so he was free of distrust for wit and its byproducts, and was unwilling to leave any bon mot unpunned or joke unsaid. He was an equal opportunity humorist—Van der Merwe was as likely to be mocked for his Low Country dim-wittedness as Sixpence or other domestics were for theirs—but most of his jokes would have fit into a compendium of self-mocking Jewish humor.

"I do like jokes," Dr. Vish assures me. "I even tell them at the dinner table sometimes." Of course, I could not resist parading my collection of funny phrases and lengthily set-up punchlines like the (good) bad boy in class who has to let the teacher see the frog in his jacket pocket, the poopoo cushion in his school satchel. "What worries me is the excesses," the good doctor continues. "The humor that blocks out the world like bricks in a wall."
     Hey, teacher, leave us kids alone.


I) Clothes

     His blue, wool dressing-gown with its red brocaded sleeves. This garment would have been considered a treasure by the University's theatre, so suited is it for an Edwardian drama. Did Father really wear it when he toddled to the bathroom for a matutinal pee or foamed his mouth with toothpaste before and after a night's sleep? I see him marching to my room in the middle of a night when I have been woken by bad dreams, draped in his gown with a torch in his hand, Wee Willie Winkie in drag. The robe now hangs in my cupboard, but it is there more for admiration than use. I was swamped by it when I first tried it on, a year and a week after Father's death (which was one day before mother had arranged to give his clothes to an African charity). Later, a month before I went into the army, I had again attempted to wear it, but my arm fit in its sleeve like a stuffed sausage and I would have burst the seams if I'd attempted to put the whole garment around my shoulders. Today, with some adjustment it might fit me, but I haven't made an attempt again and it stays in the back of my cupboard along with other clothes I don't wear—Mother's forlorn attempt to pretend I will one day come home again. It hangs there, empty, Father himself all but for his corporeal body. Unfortunately, it does not even smell of him anymore, for while I was away on my little holiday with the South African Defense Force, Mother sent it home with the washerwoman who used too much blue soap and dried it on a clothesline exposed to the wind and sun and the occasional drifting coal smoke of her township until it was stiff as a board.

II) Lenses

     The magnifying glass—ornate silver in a folding case of black leather. Father confessed to using it to fry ants when he was a small boy. He would begin at some distance then narrow the glowing white orb until the luckless myrmid began to flee, then he would bring the sun closer and closer until a puff of foul-smelling smoke spiraled up from a body in the process of metamorphosing. His father lent him this precious object to keep him entertained while he negotiated with African headmen or straightened forks for the boerevrouen.
     "He probably didn't know—or care—that I used it to play God with the goggas, like Aristophanes' boys did with the frogs," Dad said. "Of course, I also used it to observe the beauty of small things." He liked to go on to tell me the story of Van Leeuwenhoek, the Dutch lens-grinder who invented the microscope, another brilliant amateur who changed the way we regard the world. This was a message I heard from him often—like the time he gave me a chemistry set for my birthday, a gift I am ashamed to say still sits unopened. He would reiterate in tautological phrases how the greatest scientific discoveries were the provenance of gifted amateurs. "It's important to learn stuff at school," he said, "but don't forget how much you can learn just by paying attention to what’s around you." Funny, the one adjective I've heard most often applied to him by those who knew him is "distracted."

III) Sport

     His set of Golf Clubs. Used exactly once. They reside in a marvelously well-stitched blue leather bag which is as tall as I am when I first encounter it. Dad takes me with him to watch him play on the golf course in Melrose, telling me that we might run into Gary Player on the first tee (no need to repeat the inevitable anecdote about our country's most famous golfer and the gorilla who hits his first drive onto the green). I have no experience of golf, yet even I can see that Dad's stance is not what it should be. We are followed around by several African caddies my own age, although Dad insists on carrying the clubs himself. They giggle behind the palms of their hands at the way he crunches and misaligns his body, his head bobbing up and down as he looks at the white ball sitting like a mushroom cap on its white tee in the brown earth then over at the distant flag in its green toupee, then down at the tee again. Strangely, his spidery, bandy-legged stance and thin shoulders produce a surprisingly powerful drive and the ball sails all the way to the green, resting on its outer lip. Father is a poor putter, though, unable to capitalize on his early success. I try a shot or two, but the clubs are too long and too heavy for me, twisting in my hands as I strike at the ball which shoots sideways, practically hitting the annoyed businessman on the next green.
     We stay on the golf course for a long time, almost until the sun is going down. I amuse myself by drawing an invisible line through one of many teeming ant routes and watching them scurry around in confusion before they form a seamless stream again. When we return to our car, first turning in the scorecard and extra balls, the place is closing up and we see half a dozen ragged and dusty black children walking towards the road. Uncharacteristically, Dad asks if they would like a lift. The children look astonished, hardly believing their luck, and they pile into our car before we can change our minds. One gives a shrill whistle with his lower lip curled beneath his front teeth, and several more of the caddies come pelting out of a shed and get into the car with us. I have somehow wound up in the back, pressed between a six-year-old with a green plug of mucus in either nostril and his older brother who smiles encouragingly at me. There are three others in the back and three more in the front, all of us squeezed into the Chevy like Smarties in a tin. I am wearing shorts and try not to let my bare legs touch the dusty, streaked legs of the boys next to me ... then I grow self-conscious and ashamed of what I am doing and let my legs relax against the warm and companionable familiarity of my fellow children. The oldest and boldest of them gives directions. He is a very dark ten-year-old in a hole-filled green pullover, his thoughtful expression rendered ferocious by a crooked left canine jutting sideways into the space where a missing bicuspid should be. He gives directions with the precision and assurance of a master surgeon, solemn, aware that lives depend on him. The other children gasp and giggle at every bump, lurch, or turn and it gradually dawns on me that this may be the first time any of them has been in a passenger car. This ride is a rare luxury for them; though I can't wait until they are all out again and I can stretch out and breathe freely once more. After about five miles, the child leader indicates a corner where there is a busstop surrounded by adult Africans waiting to go back to the township. The children tumble out of three open doors, shouting "Goodbye, baas. Thank you, baas." The leader is the last to go, nodding briefly at first Dad then me, before disappearing into the crowd to find his charges. He is the only one not to use that word. It is clear that he is pleased at what we have done—it has saved them a long and wearying walk—but he is not grateful, nor need he be.
     I think it is this ride, so generously and unthinkingly given, that keeps Dad from returning to play golf again. The set of clubs stays in the back of the spare cupboard, behind an old coat and a rattan carpet beater.

IV) Recording Devices

     It sits in its own casket, a white cardboard box marked "Paul Reads Poetry" in my father's spindly handwriting (like bugs on a white page). It is an old-fashioned magnetic reel tape, looking more like a cine-reel than its closer relatives, the cassettes we so cheerily pop into the car tape player so we can shut out the sounds of Africa while listening to Johnny and Sipho sing about these self-same sounds. The blue, amazingly heavy National Panasonic tape recorder has long since been given away with the rest of Dad's things, but this tape remains. Did Mother keep it because my name is on the outside of the box, not his? Almost certainly.
     I remember, of course, the day I read to the machine. I was nine-years-old, one of the finalists trying out to be the champion to represent our school at a national poetry reciting competition. The previous winners had always been from one of the Afrikaans schools, but our headmaster hoped to change that. None of us were allowed to recite in English—there would be no inferior Wordsworth, Blake, or Shakespeare. We would compete on their terms, reciting a sophisticated poem in Afrikaans. ("My dad says there's no such thing," Danny Mainzer had whispered into my ear.) Miss Tompkins, who was usually at odds with Mister Burnside, took on this task wholeheartedly. She told us how pleased she was that we would have this opportunity.
     "I would have liked to introduce you to the works of Ingrid Jonker or Antjie Krog, such marvelous young Afrikaans women writers. They started when they were not much older than you. But there are some people—ignorant, loutish souls—who complain their work is too critical, unpatriotic. So you won't be reading ‘Of A Child Dead at Sharpeville,’ or My Mooi Land, beautiful and evocative though those works might be." (She had no problem speaking of things she knew would never be part of our curriculum, going on the assumption that some good would come of our being aware of the existence of works and ideas outside the confines of Christian National Education.) I found out much later that the works of both these poets were taught at the Afrikaans schools...minus the offending texts, of course. Still, she was probably right: the panel of dour Afrikaans judges would surely view a reading by children of the Barney Barnato Primary School 1 of even the most innocuous works by these authors as seditious.
     In the event, I was given a long section of "Oom Gert Vertel"; Miss Tompkins' serendipity showing up in her selection long before the poet became my favorite food writer as well. Memorizing my selected reading for oral recitation was no problem; however, Miss Tompkins felt there was room for much improvement in how I projected my voice or conveyed the feelings beneath Leipoldt's words. "This is poetry, Paul," she said to me with unusual severity. "Not the Rand Daily Mail." She advised me to find some way to record my words, so I might hear where I went wrong and listen to myself improve. I knew Dad owned a tape recorder, an expensive toy which he did not use much as he had a general dislike of mechanical things (and resented their recalcitrance at his hands, no doubt a source of conflict with a father who could take the most mangled machine and get it whirring and humming again within minutes.) So I asked him to tape me as I practised.
     One of the horrors of death, its very permanence, is that you will never again hear the beloved parent, friend, or lover's voice again. My recall may be perfect, but I am non-musical and my memory translates heard speech into words on the page. I can remember exactly what words Dad spoke, but the sound of it, that immediacy of sonic vibration, is lost to me. I know that he said little during and after my recitation, just "Yes, okay," when I asked him if I could listen to what I had just recited. But I came to feel an intense desire to hear even that little.
     Problem was, I no longer had the tape-recording machine that would play back this reel. I could scour the pawnshops, I supposed, but I did not get around to doing so. Finally, while at the university, I realized there would be people there in their audiovisual laboratory who could transfer the reel to a cassette that I could listen to whenever I chose. And that is what I did. "This is for my research," I told the assistant in the media lab, a dour young man with a bent pixieish nose and acne-scarred skin, but he did not seem to care. When I picked up the cassette and the old reel, profuse thanks about to spill forth, he grinned at me and said: "If you'd like to research children reading poems, I can find you plenty more where that came from." No, it's all right, I began, before realizing he was making fun of me. I blushed and stammered out my thanks before rushing out of there.
     I am sitting in the comfy armchair in my flat's living room, a glass of Johnny Walker Black (Dad's brand) on the coffee table in front of me. Next to my drink is the tape player that I have not yet dared to turn on. Finally, I do so. I take a sip of my Scotch, wondering for a moment whether I should have chosen something with a more assertive character...or to have been born with a more assertive character. Then I close my eyes and listen.
     God, what a high-pitched voice I had! To my own ears, filtered through the bones of my skull, that voice had been pleasant and mellifluous. I listen all the way through, and throughout it is only me but for that final "Yes, okay." Yet I am transported, and I immediately rewind the tape and play it again. Dad is sitting on the rocking chair slightly to the right and behind me where I am reciting. That chair, too, has been sold, although Mother kept far less interesting or well-made furniture. The chair was put together by my grandfather, his hands rubbing it smooth, his sweat absorbed by its dark wood, the riempies 2 of leather that formed its seat lovingly stretched by his strong arms, dexterously tied by his powerful but arthritic fingers. Mother appreciates the magic life of objects, their latent energy, so she gets rid of those that retain the wrong spirits.
     Now and then, Father pushes back with his feet and the chair creaks back and forth for a few seconds, clearly audible at first then slowing to diminuendo. Tick! Tock! A rhythm like a heart starting and stopping. I close my eyes and listen intently to that gentle creaking of floorboards, the audible silence of Dad's listening, and here he is, though dead these past twenty years two months and four days, as vivid a presence as ever he was in life. My reasoning mind tediously notes that these are sounds made by a pattern of negatively and positively charged ions on a metal-impregnated celluloid tape, but my own heart tells me that he is here with me in my Hillbrow flat...a visitation helped along by technology. I am physically stunned by how palpable he is, though so quiet. If I had instruments sensitive enough, no doubt I could hear his breathing, the pulse of blood in his veins. There is a space the size of his body in the room with me, a space created by the slightest of sounds and the absence of sound, the silent presence that absorbs my words. The chair, his own father's spirit trapped in the lovingly worked wood, holds his body in time and rocks back and forth with his living weight: tramp, tramp, tramp.


Tony Eprile is the author of Temporary Sojourner and Other South African Stories and will be Writer-in-Residence at Skidmore College in Spring '03. He lives with his family in Bennington, Vermont.