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Number One Son

J. B. Miller

hen I dream of my father, he is young, good-looking and whole. He has both his legs, his original hips, his colon. His brain is in full focus, his hearing is good, his heart valve doesn't need a splint. He can walk, and so he walks to me, smiling. He is waving. "Hello, Son," he says. "This is your Friendly Father."

That's what he used to say on the phone. "This is your Friendly Father." The messages he left on my answering machine were priceless. "Your Friendly Father wants to know how his Number-One Son is." He'd taken to calling me "Number-One Son" after Charlie Chan's popular greeting in early talkies. My father was amused by the awful, political incorrectness of it all. Being the inveterate recorder that I am, I saved some of those phone messages. I used to save everything. When I visited my parents, I regularly bugged the dinner table, hiding a micro-cassette recorder behind a plant. No one seemed to mind. They expected it. I saved ticket stubs and phone messages and greeting cards - even shopping lists. I was the family's Boswell, amassing cartons of ephemera for the inevitable Miller Museum.

But with each passing year, the museum seemed less and less likely. The cartons filled up storage lockers and basement shelves, and eventually I stopped saving anything. It wasn't fun anymore. My father was getting sicker, and he began losing things: his right leg, his colon, his hip, his hair. "You're getting careless," I told him. "I know," he said. "It's embarrassing." He was getting smaller, too. He was shrinking. His ass was so flat it looked almost concave in his pants. He was getting old.

What is old? Why is it? Why do some people rush to it, while others take their time? My father seemed to get old fast. He was middle-aged, and then suddenly he was old.

And then he died. He lived, and then he died. I don't know how else to phrase it. He walked among us, and then he croaked. He circled the bucket, and then he kicked it. He ate the fishes, and now he sleeps with them.

Welcome to Non-God

(Resuscitation through Speculation)

When I was a teenager growing up in Concord, Massachusetts, I used to take walks in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, which was across the street and up a hill from where we lived. It was a beautiful compound, with rolling hills and ornate, crumbling tombstones. Secretly, and somewhat guiltily, I hoped that my parents had bought plots there. It was a prestigious address for dead people, with its own Poet's Corner. Henry David Thoreau was buried there, as was William Waldo Emerson, Nathanial Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott. I loved this cemetery and often imagined visiting the graves of my parents there someday. I wondered how hard it was to get into Sleepy Hollow, if there was a Jewish section, and if you didn't get in, could you be waitlisted and maybe transfer from another cemetery?

In the event, my father was cremated. But he hadn't stipulated what was to be done to his ashes - or his "cremains," as they were ridiculously referred to in the funeral business. He'd been quietly spiritual all his life, but too grounded to particularly care what happened to his obsolete mortal infrastructure after he'd stopped breathing. The majesty of cathedrals impressed him - and moved him - but he'd never talked about being buried in one.

My parents had both been born Jewish, but they'd joined the local Unitarian Church shortly after I'd left home. Even that was a bit too religious for my mother. Whenever the minister so much as uttered the word "God" or "Jesus," she would scoff. You could hear it - a sort of theatrical, sarcastic cough that travelled a good seven or eight pews. She resented any attention the deity received and more recently had founded a "Non-God" group, which brought a small crowd to her living room every Thursday afternoon. It had started with just three people, but lately as many as 15 had shown up, and it was growing.

" What do you talk about?" I asked her.

"We debate the existence of God."

"Hasn't that already been decided? I mean, you're all Christians, aren't you?"

"We're not Christians, we're Unitarians. We talk about God, and I argue for the negative, that there is no God. It seems pretty obvious to me."

"How successful have you been in convincing anyone?"

"It's an uphill battle, but I think some of them are beginning to crack."

I thought that I was beginning to crack too, but in the other direction. My father had been dead for a few weeks and dealing with it was giving my Atheism a bit of a workout. I'd ordered this book from Amazon.com, along with a Braun electric kettle and a Roxy Music DVD. The book was called Why Atheism? and I'd assumed the answer was "Why not?" But it turned out to be more complicated than that.

Methodology is the study of method, and method (in Kant's words) is "procedure according to principle." . The first method is known as onus probandi .

It was probably simple stuff, but I had no idea what the guy was talking about. I wanted pictures of Atheism, diagrams, charts, cartoons. I was still running on a low voltage. In the days after my father's death, there was a momentary blackout in my consciousness, like a TV set adjusting itself after a bolt of lightening had struck the house. After that, I began seeing things in a slightly different light, questioning things I'd taken for granted before, like what the point of my cat was, and what was up with soy sauce?

Bright colors seemed absurdly comical, and whole swathes of music that I'd formerly had no problem with - from Mahler to Radiohead - had begun to sound like the incessant humming of an air conditioner. My perceptions were going wonky, and I started worrying about key body parts. I wondered if I was going through the messy birth of a religious conversion. If so, I wasn't enjoying it.

According to a book called Fatherloss , I was experiencing a "Body Blow." (If I'd been 10 years younger, it would have been "Too Soon." If I were a kid, I'd have been "Torn Asunder.") The book claimed that "a son who's is thirty-three to fifty-five when his father dies is more likely than a man in any other age group - including those over fifty-five - to experience a rising concern about his own mortality in the couple of years following his father's death."

In my own case, this hadn't happened yet. For a start, I wasn't sure if my father was really dead. For another, I fully intended to live forever. Or at least until they'd perfected space food, aerocars, and language pills.

A body blow. Was that what I was suffering from? Would that explain my sex addiction, my web obsession, my TV fixation, my extreme indolence?

My hopeful explanation for this sloth was that I was hosting a brain dysfunction and didn't know it. In my mind I'd concocted the scenario of the call the doctor would make to my mother after I'd been admitted to Mt. Sinai Hospital for tests.

"Mrs. Miller... I'm afraid I have some shocking news."

"What is it?"

"We x-rayed your son's head, and it turns out that he's had a brain tumor the size of an orange his entire life."

"Oh my God. But he's always seemed okay. A bit indolent, perhaps..."

"Indolent? It's amazing he's managed to do anything."

"Well, he hasn't really done very much."

"Yes, but the fact that he's even managed to get up in the morning... He's really a miracle of science. You should be very proud."

"Oh, I am. I am."

That was the bane - along with other banes - of my existence: my parents liked whatever I did. I could chop up a boxcar full of nurses and my mother would smile for the cameras and declare it first-rate performance art. If I'd rigged the Florida recount, my father would have chocked it up to a healthy political learning curve. It was the curse of a happy childhood, but I was paying for it now. I'd devolved to some kind of ectoplasmic state, sinking into the sofa, watching Turner Classic Movies and eating buckets of microwave popcorn. Occasionally I'd check my e-mail, or trawl the Internet for sweepstakes or porn. That was my life. I'd given up. Body blow? This was more like a body meltdown, a return to primordial soup. I was retired. It was time to order up the golf clubs and move to Florida.

In the Jewish faith (so I'd been told), a surviving son is supposed to go to synagogue and pray, every day, for a year. Every damn day. It seemed a mite excessive.

And yet, I understood it. The wound - the body blow - would gradually heal, and after the 365 th day, you could peel off that Band-Aid and the scab would be healed.

I felt I was visiting my father every day. We were close. It helps to understand how close we were. We were like family, we were friends, buddies. He was Friendly Father, I was Number-One Son.

I missed his laugh, a kind of involuntary, phlegmy cackle that - if you could see it - exposed a jagged mouth of pointy teeth. Little fangs. More recently, I'd usually heard his laughter over the phone, and in the back of my mind - way back - I wondered if my sense of humor had actually killed him, or at least been a factor in his death. I remember once I made him laugh so much I heard an odd gasping sound and then a thump. He'd actually fallen down from laughing so hard. I can't even remember what we'd been talking about. It was a stroke that had finally done him in, but I wondered if all the times I'd made him laugh - and gasp for air - had prevented his brain from getting enough oxygen and the accumulation had contributed to that last act. The idea filled me with gloom, as well as - I have to admit it - a certain sense of accomplishment. Comics like to say they "knocked them dead," "killed them," "slaughtered them." But how often is it actually true?

No, that's stupid. Filthy stupid. But it was representative of my base thinking. I had to recharge my perspective, reboot my brain. I'd send out an e-mail announcing my newly minted state: a being in fresh form, open to metaphysical argument.

Dear All,

Let it be known, from this day forward, that a new Jabes is emerging, free of narcissism, death-obsession, and Turner Classic Movies.

What's going on?



But first I'd change my ISP. That might help. I was tired of the poor customer service, the spam, and the embarrassing suffix of being on America On Line. I got a new ISP, e-mailed everyone I knew with the address change and my mission statement, and was about to disconnect my AOL account when I decided... not to. I wasn't sure what was stopping me.

Then, casually scrolling through some old mail I'd neglected to delete, I discovered the reason. The message box read simply, "Friendly Father." I clicked on it.

Just an electronic note to say your Friendly

Father is thinking of you. FF

Fourteen words that hit me like heartburn. I clicked on "Reply," and wrote:

Thanks for your note. I'm thinking of you too. What's going on?

Love, Jabes


And then I realized why I couldn't disconnect my old address: what if my father wanted to write back? I knew it was unlikely - but what if?

Over the next couple of weeks I checked my old account regularly, just on the off chance there was a note from the Beside or the Beyond, or wherever the hell he was. I couldn't figure out how else he could reach me.

There were a lot of messages. The subject boxes all shared a poor sense of punctuation and some added gratuitous nonsense words to get past any potential spam filters:

" the world's #1 penis enlargement formula! Duol"

"your penis will be thicker and fuller"

"does the size of your penis matter to your lover?"

"Learn How To Make It Bigger... I Did!!"

"want a bigger dick? Gbuljrpe?"

"the average penis size is just 6 inches.. iksrm"

"Bigger Breasts Securely And Without Delay (sq1c5)"

"want a bigger dick? xfm m q"

"the world's #1 penis enlargement formula! Miymvbf"

"Attractive Fresh Breasts In A Jiffy"

"Stop paying for your DSS Satellite Service"

"Cheapest Cigarettes on Earth"

"Home Loans & Refinancing at Very Low Rates!"

Intellectually I knew that this was spam. But I also entertained the fleeting notion that maybe my father was trying to tell me something. But if he was, it seemed to be that I should get a bigger penis, start smoking, order satellite TV, secure a mortgage, and - yes - install breast implants. What did it mean? Would he really have left me a message like that? No, of course not. So maybe the true message was: read between the lines. But what was going on? I had to reassess the situation, read the clues. But the clues were confusing.

Reasons to Suspect My Father Was Dead:

•  I hadn't seen him in a while.

•  Everyone said he was dead.

•  His obituary had run in the Boston Globe.

•  I'd spoken at his memorial service.

Reasons to Suspect My Father Wasn't Dead:

•  There had often been stretches of time when I hadn't seen him.

•  I didn't actually witness him die.

•  He'd always been alive.

•  He'd never leave me.

Dead heat.

Time Travel

My father once asked me, out of the blue, "What do you think happens to you after you die?" We were canoeing on the Concord River. It was about the only exercise we ever got, besides walking, and we were both ridiculously proud of ourselves.

"Who, me?" I joked. I was caught off guard. I'd never heard him talk about this before. "Well, I'm planning to go time travelling," I said. It wasn't true; I hadn't actually thought about it much. But now that I'd said it, it made sense.

My father was silent for a while, and he stopped paddling, lost in thought, as if trying to calculate something. "Where would you go?"

"Lots of times. Nineteen forty-nine. Nineteen eighty-two. I think I screwed it up the first time."

We were heading towards the bank, because I was still paddling on only one side. I steered us back towards the middle of the river.

"I'd go to 1910," said my father, finally paddling again.

"Okay, I'll meet you there."

"It's a deal," he said. He turned to me and smiled. "February 1 st , 1910."


"London. Actually - Berlin. At the Brandenburg Gate."

"What time?"


He reached back his hand and we shook on it. "I'll be wearing a top coat and a top hat," he said, "with a white carnation in my button hole, so you'll recognize me."

"Oh, I'll recognize you. You'll be the one who's my father."

"I was the one who was your father," he said, getting into the spirit of the idea - though it sounded odd.

"Right - was , " I said. "How old will we be? Were we? Whatever."

"Same age as we are now." My father was in his fifties. I was 16.

"You better do the talking for us," I said. "I don't speak a stick of German."

"Ach, was soll der Mensch verlangen?/Ist es besser, ruhig blieben?"

"What's that?" I asked.


"Better keep that to yourself. We don't want to start any trouble."

He never kept things like Goethe to himself. He espoused on all things Mozart and Mahler and Vermeer and Shakespeare and Proust. Once, when I'd finally cracked Proust, I shared the news with him, expecting him to be pleased. He took a look at the fat paperback I'd barely put a dent in. "Proust - in English ?" he said disgustedly. I felt like an imbecile. Reading Proust in English was tantamount to spilling ketchup on an El Greco or driving a Humvee over Edward Albee.

It's true he tended to appreciate what I did, but I sometimes felt it was the patronizing appreciation of watching a halfwit successfully spell his name out in dry pasta. " Well done , J.B."

I couldn't compete with him on his level, and I worried sometimes that I was poor intellectual company. What I could do was make him laugh. It was more or less a reciprocal arrangement, because he had the driest sense of humor I ever encountered. It was parched. Because of his voluminous knowledge, we tended to treat him at times like an encyclopaedia set ("Hey, Dad, what's Cartesian logic?") and he was just as happy to give purposefully wrong information if it was more entertaining ("Cartesian logic is the logic of wells, formed in Wells, England, in the 14 th century by Sir Joshua Cartesia. Next question?") If anyone made the mistake of believing him, he was likely to expand on the information till it reached the breaking point, which was his way of letting you off the hook. He'd never admit that he was making it up - you were on your own as far as figuring that out. I tended to be a gullible kid, so for years I believed that the Japanese had changed the side of the road they drove on one night in 1968, and it was the job of one man - one man - to go around the country, turning all the signs around. (This was in answer to my question, "Do any countries besides Britain drive on the left-hand side of the road?")

Perhaps he resented being exploited as some kind of search engine in human form, or was afraid to admit that he just didn't know everything. Although I assumed that he did know everything.

As he got older he shocked me by saying - with a sad smile - "I just don't know." It seemed impossible. How could he not know the name of Tsar Nicholas's four daughters, or the year Shaw died, or the color you get when you mix orange and blue? What had happened?

Lounging in bed, watching the "Rockford Files" on cable while munching on Saltine crackers, owl-eyed in his large Lew Wasserman glasses, he'd smile hugely at the interruption, throw his arms out and announce, with the faux pomp of a herald from Buckingham Palace: "Welcome!" The New York Times would be spread out on the bed, the Arts section folded to the TV page with various programs circled in ballpoint pen. I often noticed several shows circled for the same time slot - a conflict I pointed out: "How can you watch 'Columbo' and 'Kojak' and 'Great Tank Battles of World War Two' at the same time?"

"I switch around."

I could see that the Times crossword had been attempted, a few desultory squares filled in. The crossword must have been the most heartbreaking of his abbreviated regimen, because it was cruel proof of his diminishing mental powers. He'd been used to zipping through it in a matter of minutes - even the Sunday magazine puzzle, which was the hardest. I'd joke that if he was just patient he could wait a day and he'd get all the answers. (I was so bad at it I liked to claim I'd pay extra for a subscription that had the crossword already filled in.) But he was a wiz, performing these mental push-ups in lieu of, well, actual physical push-ups.

On my visits home, when I first found these unfinished puzzles, I assumed my father had been interrupted by some crucial activity - perhaps the Fed Chairman had called for advice on interest rates, or the President had phoned for a definition of "Cartesian thinking." But gradually, as I found the crosswords with more and more empty squares, I realized what was going on - and what's more, recognized my father's awareness of it. Eventually the crossword was skipped altogether, in favor of the proximate movie reviews and the TV page with its multiple offerings.

What was this like - to chart your own mental diminishment? When de Kooning was said to be losing his mind, his great amorphous abstractions became simplified and condensed, and there was beauty in this subtle, graceful exit, like the last movement of a piano concerto. But to abandon Thomas Mann for "Macmillan and Wife" - what coarse cultural comedown was this?

"His mind is going," my mother would say cheerfully later in the kitchen. "He's fading." She liked being in charge finally, although being "in charge" meant fetching things from the living room and bringing endless glasses of ice tea and bowls of Saltine crackers. It meant cleaning him up, and getting him dressed, and driving him to restaurants when, even after half his colon had been snipped out, he still insisted on eating nothing but steak. My mother said she was fine about it, and would volunteer this information so often that I began to get suspicious. "Really, I'm fine," she'd say, reiterating a point I hadn't even contested. "Really, it's okay. I'm fine."

I wasn't. I was exasperated by his condition, as well as slightly embarrassed by this bedridden denouement, because I knew what had come before, and what direction it was going in. And I missed his intellectual razzing. "Dad, where the hell is Lichtenstein?" I asked him, reading about some tycoon's Byzantine tax arrangements.

"Sorry, I just don't know."

And he was sorry. Sorry because he used to know exactly where it was, enough to volunteer the erroneous information that it was "just below Kansas, but only on weekdays." I missed the misinformation. I'd have to come up with my own misinformation now.

J.B.'s New Private List of Misinformation

Until the age of five, Adolf Hitler thought he was a girl.

Contrary to popular belief, photography was actually invented in 1774 by the Parell Brothers in France, but Jacques Parell was killed in a boating accident in 1784, and Pierre Parell was guillotined in 1789. All of their early photographic experiments had been kept in the Bastille for safekeeping. Everything was destroyed.

Duke Ellington originally wanted to call his famous composition "Take the C Train," but it was taking too long, so he changed over to the A train, which was an express.

When you mix orange with green you get burnt ochre.

The most dangerous sport is bowling. In parts of China, hundreds of people are killed bowling every year. Many of them are shot.

Picasso was the fastest painter who ever lived. He had 17 houses, most of them unfurnished, and he painted all of them. He never learned how to drive.

New Zealand used to be called New Zapland, until someone pointed out that there was no Old Zapland. But everyone thought "Zapland" sounded too strange. A national referendum was held to find a new name. It was won by 12-year-old Amanda Zeal, but she was run over by a milk van before she could collect the prize, which was a set of bathroom towels. She was buried with them.


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