He came to the conclusion that the primary difference between what he did and what the Nazis did in the death camps was that the Nazis lost the war and the Americans won the war, which meant that everything done during the war could be justified as a necessary component of victory.
That was the year my father tried to kill himself by jumping into our swimming pool with his hands and legs bound together, a plastic bag from the produce section of the grocery store wrapped around his head. When my brother and I fished him out of the pool, alive but incoherent, he spit out a mouthful of heavily chlorinated water and said, “Hell is the color of zinc.”
Neither of us knew what he meant. My brother was still in high school and I was unemployed and hadn’t bothered applying for college, so I stayed home with him and made sure he didn’t kill himself. Our mother had died of cancer several years earlier, which is what I think caused our father’s psychotic break.
Caring for him was similar to caring for a child, except he could eat on his own and go to the washroom on his own. He was like a child in the sense that, if left too long to his own devices, he would find a way to engineer his own destruction.
Once I found him trying to electrocute himself by inserting a metal butter knife into an electric socket. Once I found him trying to make a milkshake out of our mother’s ashes.
The weird thing is that he wasn’t even the one who dropped the bomb. He hadn’t even been on the plane. Officially, the only thing he was guilty of is bringing the orders to drop the bomb to another person, who then sent word to the pilot of the bomber flying over Japan.
Following his logic, the man who designed the toilet that other students used to try to drown me in should be held accountable for my terrible high school experience.
“Have you seen the pictures?” Whenever I tried to reason with him, my father would bring up the pictures and go to his room and come out with the very sad, very grotesque image of the little girl with radiation burns running through the street. “You’re comparing this to toilets? Maybe you’re the one who should be trying to kill yourself.”
After the war my father met my mother, and he momentarily forgot about the bomb being dropped. He started a company that imported board games from foreign countries and brought them to America. Since he could speak six languages, he was very successful.
Then I was born and my brother, Martin, was born, and things continued on the expected path. As his business became more successful, he traded up houses and occasionally cheated on our mother. Martin believes that this, too, factored into his psychotic break.
“It’s a form of magical thinking.”
“What is a form of magical thinking?”
Martin wanted to become a psychiatrist and spent time reading Freud in German, even though he was in still high school and should have been reading things like Catcher in the Rye. Our father said he would teach us one language each, we could pick the language. Martin learned German, while I learned Russian.
I can’t speak or read Russian anymore. Martin has maintained his German.
Martin said that our father’s infidelity secretly shamed him, to the extent that when our mother died of cancer, he believed himself to be somehow responsible for her death.
“In other words, that his own sins caused those around him to suffer.”
“If he was so ashamed,” I argued, “why didn’t he stop sleeping with other women?”
Martin looked at me very sadly. Even though he was still in high school, Martin had the wise eyes of a prematurely aged child. Today, whenever I read Charlie Brown comic strips in the newspaper, which also feature prematurely aged children, I contemplate how seamlessly teenage Martin could fit into the rectangular boxes that make up Charlie Brown’s world.
Our father tried to reconstruct a miniature city resembling Hiroshima. When he realized that the garage wasn’t big enough to adequately house the city, he settled for building the drop site of the bomb and the neighborhoods most affected by the nuclear fall out. Three times a week he visited the model shop and the craft shop and the hardware store. Some of the houses were made of cardboard and tooth picks, others of thin wedges of wood held together with glue and chicken wire.
He found maps in the library and copied them painstakingly using tracing paper, comparing the map to the city in the garage. As an experiment, Martin and I relocated a single office building, replacing it with a similarly shaped building from another neighborhood. It was like dropping a stone in a well and waiting to see how deep our father’s insanity ran.
It turned out his insanity ran very deep. Days after moving the office building, we found the mangled corpses of our bicycles on the driveway. Our father was sitting in a lawn chair waiting for us, wearing sunglasses with a formidable beach umbrella opened up above him to blot out the sun.
“I ran over them with the car,” he said, taking off his sunglasses and gesturing to what was left of our bicycles. “Consider this a lesson in being a deity. When someone diddles with your world, you diddle back twice as hard.” He walked over and kissed us both on the forehead and left us there, lording over our gnarled bike frames.
We fell into a vague sort of daily routine. I would get up before him and make breakfast. He would get up shortly after and sit down at the dinner table. Women who live together end up having synchronized menstrual cycles. Somehow my father and I developed a similar kind of synchronicity.
On one of his less overtly suicidal days, our father walked into the room with a sheet of paper. It had a name and a phone number. Martin was experimenting with food again, developing a kind of individual-sized ricotta and spinach lasagna set up in cupcake pans. I was piecing together how to stretch our father’s military pension into the next year.
Dad said, “When I was diddling around on your mother, I made it with a Chinawoman. Turns out she had a little girl that could be mine.” He set the piece of paper on the table, right next to the figures I was in the middle of summing. He pointed blindly at the page and said I missed a decimal point. Before leaving he visited Martin and shook his head and said, “Meat in cupcake trays? Madness, my son. Sheer madness.”
Again, Martin and I tried to decide who would do all the work. I explained that because I spent most of my time making sure our father didn’t expire, it was his duty to seek out our maybe long lost relative.
“Or,” I suggested, “we can trade places and I can find her and you can stay with him.”
Martin considered my proposal and calmly said that because he was the only one in the family who had any hope of having a normal, functional life, throwing it away by not going to school would be a waste of both his potential and the precious resources our family had afforded him.
As usual, Martin’s logic won out and he went to school to study and screw cheerleaders or whatever it is he did that I didn’t do when I was at school.
I waited until our father had fallen asleep on the couch for his afternoon nap in front of the television before dialling the number. It rang several times before a man picked up the phone.
“I’m looking for Connie Wu,” I said.
“Connie Wu,” the man on the other end said. “What do you want with her?”
“To talk to her.”
“Tell me your name.”
I didn’t like being asked questions by people I didn’t know, so I said that he should tell me his name first, that if he did that I would consider telling him mine. He hung up the phone. An hour later I called the same number, hoping that whoever had answered the phone wouldn’t answer it this time. By now Dad had woken up and had stationed himself near the phone.
“Are you calling the Chinawoman?” he kept asking.
“None of your business.”
“If you get a hold of her, tell her I’d like to see her.” He saw a small insect crawling across the linoleum floor and viciously flattened it with the bottom of his house moccasin. “Your brother can make those meat cupcakes and we could have the wine Chinese people drink.”
This time a woman answered. “Is this Connie?”
“Who is this? Did you call earlier?”
“What’s she saying?” Dad asked. “Tell her you’re probably her brother.”
“I’m your brother,” I said. “Probably. If you’re Connie Wu.”
She must have pressed her face against the number pad because a long beeping sound asserted itself against my ear. I wondered if she was in a kitchen, just like I was, with her own suicidal adult-child sitting nearby. “Is this a joke?” she asked finally.
“Tell her about the meat cupcakes,” Dad shouted.
I looked at him and said it might be a joke, but that if she wanted to meet and discuss the possibility that we might be related, I would be open to that sort of thing. When I hung up, Dad had a steak knife in his hand. He aimed the serrated blade at my chest.
“If you block me out of this equation, I’ll kill you in your sleep.”
Later, I found him in the bathtub with Mom’s ashes, crying under a shower head that rained lukewarm water over a body encased like sausage meat in a film of wet clothes.
Connie Wu agreed to come for a hundred dollars. She said it pretty much like that: “If you give me a hundred dollars, I’ll meet you and talk about whatever you want.”
When she showed up, I saw she was in between my age and Martin’s age and looked more white than Chinese. Actually, she explained, she wasn’t Chinese at all, but Korean.
“Too true, too true,” Dad said, clapping his hands with delight. He’d been clapping his hands a lot during the meeting, which took place at a diner that Connie had suggested. All three of us were there—me, Martin, and our father—though we didn’t look particularly unified as a family. Martin wore his uniform, since he’d just come from school. Our father wore a shirt and tie with a sports coat, the itchy one that left blots of pink irritation on his neck. I didn’t know what to wear, so I just went with what I’d be wearing at that time of day: a sweater, a pair of slacks, some running shoes.
“You look like your crawled out of a dumpster,” Dad had told me in the car. “At least your brother put some effort into it.”
“Who cares what we’re wearing,” Martin had said. He didn’t actually believe that we had a half-sister. He thought Connie Wu was probably a random name he pulled out of the phone book because it sounded Asian, which fit his pathology about the bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.
Connie Wu had come with a man who she introduced as Tyson, though she didn’t clarify what role Tyson played in her life. “This is Tyson,” was all she said, and Tyson nodded his head and settled into the booth beside her. Since there were so many of us, I had to sit on an extra chair, in the way of the waitress and anyone walking by. Every so often I saw Tyson put his hand on Connie’s leg under the table.
“Alright, you’ve got until I’m done this coffee to explain what the hell we’re all doing here,” Connie said.
Dad explained that he’d had an affair with a woman named Stacy Wu, who was Asian, about nineteen years ago. “I was married to their mother, who was still alive at the time.” He made a sweeping gesture indicating the two of us, his sons.
“An adulterer,” Connie said. “Great. Good. Perfect. Go on.”
“And we had a few nights of red hot passion and so on, and then out of the blue Stacy calls me and says she’s pregnant and what should we do about it.” He’d been fiddling with a sugar packet and now tore it open. Granules spilled onto the table, little crystals he formed into little piles with his thumbs. “And the other day I remembered and then I gave my sons your number and here we all are.”
Feeling on the periphery, I said, “I was the one who called.”
Connie didn’t look at me. Nobody looked at me, except Martin, who frowned. “How did you get my number?” Connie asked.
“Research, mostly,” Dad said. “I have a friend in the police department who did the leg work.” He licked the tip of his finger and dabbed it onto one of his piles, then put the gunky mess into his mouth.
Connie regarded the three of us, individually, one at a time, and after as a unit, a leviathan headed by Dad in the middle. Finally she said, “So what do you want me to do?”
Dad said he didn’t know. “Nothing. I’m not going to be around forever, and I wanted them to know they might have a sister.”
Connie gave us three a final once over, then got up, asked for a hundred dollars. Martin took out a hundred dollars—I don’t know where he got it from, though probably from the family savings, which he somehow had access to, despite being in high school—and Connie Wu walked out of the diner and into a soft and fuzzy afternoon.
Dad liked to go for walks. In a lot of ways, going with him was like walking a dog. He didn’t have to stop to piss or defecate, though he stopped a lot of take in flowers or trees or pieces of garbage he found particularly interesting. At first he said me going with him was degrading. When I said that was true, and let him go on his own (following at a distance), he told me I could follow him from closer, if I wanted to.
“When I go, I promise it’s not going to be by throwing myself off a bridge or in front of a car.”
On one of our walks I decided to bring up Connie. “How sure are we that she’s my sister?”
It was fall, the leaves turning a violent red. Dad had located what he considered to be the perfect leaf and had spent the last few minutes scrutinizing the network of veins embedded in the leaf’s translucence. Having satisfied whatever leaf-related urge had struck him, he crumpled it up and let the red flakes fall to the sidewalk.
“I’d say we’re looking at a fifty-fifty situation,” he said.
“Does she look like the woman you had sex with?”
He stuffed his hands in his pockets. “It’s been almost twenty-five years. How should I know? Do you think she looks like me?”
“Fifty-fifty,” I said.
I left a message for Connie, saying I wanted to talk and would give her money for her time. When she called back we made small talk for a while, until she asked about Dad, if he wanted to talk to her, too. “He’s playing with his miniature death city,” I said.
I told her about Hiroshima, and how he lorded over a world of toothpicks and cardboard. Connie Wu whistled into the phone. She asked me why I wasn’t working, or in school, or doing something productive.
I said, “My full-time job is making sure he doesn’t kill himself.”
“What about college?”
“Once he either succeeds in killing himself, or decides to stop trying, I was thinking of becoming a lawyer.” That was a lie. While Martin could probably get into law school, the best I could hope for was to be apprenticed to someone in the trades. Apparently plumbing could be fairly lucrative. I wondered why she was asking me questions.
“I went to college,” Connie Wu said. “For sociology.”
“That’s a nice field.” I didn’t know what sociology meant.
“Would you like to go for a drink?” Connie asked. “You can give me another hundred dollars, and you can tell me about your troubled life.”
I thought about Dad and his city and another attempted pool-plastic-bag-suicide. “Right now?”
“Will he kill himself if you leave him for a few hours?”
No, I said, he probably wouldn’t. He usually tried to kill himself whenever I was home. Martin said he didn’t actually want to kill himself, not yet, anyway. He planned his suicide attempts around my schedule. In a way, it was one of the most thoughtful gestures he’d ever performed. In another way, it made him a jackass of the highest order.
When I explained that to Connie, she pointed out that if he didn’t really want to kill himself, what did it matter whether I was around or not? I had asked Martin the same question and repeated his answer to Connie: “If I’m not around to give his suicide attempts the attention he believes he deserves, then he’ll get depressed and want to kill himself in earnest.”
Connie thought about it and said, “That’s one of the most fucked up things I’ve ever heard.”
Before meeting Connie, I waited for Martin to get home from school. I helped Dad with his Hiroshima project. He explained, for the umpteenth time, how the nuclear blast had radiated from the city center, creating a nuclear fallout twice as destructive as the one from Chernobyl. Using fine-tipped colored markers, he color-coded the magnitude of destruction.
Any living matter from the point of contact to the orbit drawn by the yellow marker had been vaporized. From the yellow marker to the blue marker, radiation burns that proved in most cases fatal. From the blue marker to the red marker, radiation poisoning on a sliding scale.
“The little girl from the picture was here,” he said, using a meter stick to point to a spot between the blue and the red. He had assembled a small army of tiny figurines, one of which he intended to use to mark the spot where the girl in the famous picture had started fleeing.
By the time Martin came home, Dad had curled up into a little ball in a part of Hiroshima he’d yet to build. I covered him with a blanket and smoked one of his cigarettes until the squeaking of Martin’s bicycle, since repaired but with some kinks to work out, made it up the drive way.
“He’s asleep,” I told him. “In the red zone of the city.”
I made sure Connie and I avoided Dad, who I knew shouldn’t be disturbed when he slept in his city. We went to the park. I could have asked Martin but I thought, fuck him, he wasn’t making any effort to get to know Connie, so why should I ask him to come?
Connie and I swung on the swing sets next to each other. We seemed to be competing for height, until she just stopped swinging and stopped moving. When the inertia pretty much ended, she let her feet dangle into the sand. “There’s no way I’m your sister. It’s not possible,” she said. “I thought you should know. I’ve been taking your money, and I thought you should know for the future. I won’t give you the money back, though. So consider this me telling you so you can make an informed decision.”
“How do you know?”
She said that her parents weren’t even in America at that point, that they immigrated after they’d had her.
At that moment, I realized that I found Connie Wu extremely attractive. I had fantasies about what her and Tyson did. We shook hands, very formally, and then she went off, taking another hundred dollars that Martin had given me from the family bank of funds.
Dad noticed my erection when I went back in the house. He’d seen us from the garage.
“You want to screw your own damn half-sister,” he said.
He closed his eyes and sipped at a pudding cup, holding it like a cup of juice. His lips made a sound I’ve come to associate with bogs and swamp bubbles popping. “You’re just like me. The other one has a shot at making it out alive, my son, but you, your DNA is quicksand.”
That night, while he slept, I went into the garage and stood over Hiroshima. The light in Martin’s room was still on; he was studying for his entrance exams and not talking to anyone. He said he wanted to conserve his mental energy, so as to, as he put it, “put as many fucking miles between me and you two retards.”
Up until that point, I had thought that it was Martin and I paired up on the same side of a triangulation that featured Dad at the tip. We formed the base that supported him. Now I realized that Dad and I had somehow became intertwined. Martin would go to college and I would be with him until he died, and by then it would be too late for anything.
I went into Dad’s room and turned on the light. He was in his underwear and shot up and knocked over the lamp.
“What is it?” he said, rubbing his face.
“Fuck you,” I said.
“Beg your pardon?” Dad said.
“Fuck you, Dad.”
He squinted. “You got a rotten mouth on you,” he said. Then he noticed the garage. I had decided that the easiest way to punish him for ruining my life was to recreate the event that had scarred him so much. He went to the window and saw the garage on fire. Martin had seen it too and ran into the room.
“Alright,” he said, his voice heavy with an eerie calm. “Which one of you two idiots is responsible for that?”
And really, it could have been either of us. In twenty years, I could be sipping pudding like juice and recreating sites of traumatic shit in my garage, provided I earn enough to be able to afford one. Once, Martin and I had a very frank conversation about mental illness, wherein we both engaged the question: is mental illness genetic, or a learned behavior?
If it is social, then why is Martin very good at life?
If it is genetic, then why is Martin very good at life?
Sirens started, the way they do, from far away, getting closer like the last bit of water in a tub, gurgling with the dirt to an audible climax.
Before I set the garage on fire, Martin came into my room. He’d found a newspaper that had a picture of Connie Wu in a bikini, tucked into a magazine on Dad’s dresser. It was an ad for an escort service. When I asked Dad, why did he pretend that Connie Wu was my sister, he didn’t say anything. He took the newspaper ad, rolled it into a ball, and threw it in the garbage.
Martin said Dad maybe had delusions and actually thought Connie was their sister, or maybe, “and this is even more disturbing,” Martin said, “he was just trying to fuck with us.”
Only Martin didn’t appear fucked with. He gave me the money for my visits with Connie, not saying anything about it, and now, in retrospect, I realized I must have seemed so sad to him.
We stood over the garage. A plume of smoke rose in a corkscrew into the air.
None of us three made any movement to stop anything, and when Dad took Martin’s hand in his own on the right, and my hand in his own on the right, it felt like something was maybe beginning, and maybe coming to an end. The fire was so bright that when I looked away I saw it stamped on my field of vision, just like the past, or maybe the future, or maybe none of those things. Eventually Martin went to his room and took his textbook to the back porch, away from the noise.
Dad and I just watched and waited for what had started burning to stop, his palms milky with sweat, and mine cold, cold, cold.