He was such an elusive and transient figure that for the first eight years of my life I seem to have believed my father was the product of my imagination. The adult world that I traveled through was populated almost exclusively by women: there were the teachers who trained me on the multiplication tables, the state capitals, and the three branches of government; their aides and assistants; the babysitters, nannies, and housecleaners; the plastic-gloved, hairnetted cafeteria workers who called me Pepito as they ladled out my hot lunches; the school nurse who schemed to deplete me of my saliva with her tasteless wooden tongue depressors; and a jumpsuit-clad handywoman named Celie who spent fruitless hours wading through the school trash to find the loose tooth I threw away, fearing its escape from my mouth meant I was falling apart. There was my sister, who came into existence two years after me; a pair of fragile but living grandmothers, sundry aunts, great-aunts, and cousins. And there was Mom, who sat above them all on this pyramidal structure of progesterone. But there was only one Dad, or so I was told.
It required the combined energies of these many women to discharge the duties normally provided to me by the indefatigable and infinitely resourceful Mom; each had her specialized skills and knowledge, but Mom equaled, encompassed, and surpassed them all. By day, she was not only the Chooser of Clothes, the Maker of Breakfast and the Conveyor to and from School, the Holder of Hands and the Kisser of Cuts and Bruises. She was the Giver of Language, who provided names for the distinctive vagrants who wandered our block—Rudolph, with his bright red nose, and Froggy, whose raspy voice carried all the way up from the gutter to our twenty-fifth-story apartment on East Fortieth Street, with what was then an unobstructed view of the East River—and the Tutor of Numbers, who showed me how the digits of Manhattan’s streets grew bigger from south to north and from east to west. She taught me that the person whom others called Maddy but whom I knew as Mom were one and the same, and she reminded me that there was another person named Gerry whom I knew as Dad, and that Mom and Dad each had a mom and a dad, too.
By night, she tirelessly rubbed her cool, foul-smelling jellies into my chest when it was filled with phlegm, operated the dials of a mysterious hissing device called the vaporizer, and massaged my feet when the pain from their bones, growing and stretching without my consent, caused me to cry. At dawn, she rose again to implore me not to be frightened by the apocalyptic rumblings of the newspaper trucks roaring forth to make their morning deliveries, backfiring like pistols as they went.
She was my co-conspirator when I sought extra sick days to stay home and watch game shows; she was my chief defender when, as she observed me on my first attempt to purchase my own food at McDonald’s, I was pushed out of line by a grown-up female customer. (“I told her she was very rude,” my mother explained, and for a time I believed this was the most devastating thing a person could be called.) And when she did not feel like dealing with the world, she was my date to a thousand matinees, to movies for which we would always arrive late and then stay in our seats and watch a second time so we could see them in their entirety. Many years passed before I learned that a movie could be watched just once at a theater.
All she asked in return was that I abide, to the letter, by a byzantine system of laws, regulations, and taboos known only to her and forever in flux. Don’t play Spider-Man on the weblike netting that extends over the side of our terrace and into the inviting blue sky. Don’t leave the dinner table until you’ve taken five more bites of your food—so determined because I was five years old, and the following year the penalty would go up to six bites. “Hand, hand, fingers, thumb!” she would call out when we approached the edge of the sidewalk, requesting that we lock digits before she escorted me across the street. Sometimes she would stand with me at a distance from the curb, watching the cars whiz by as the traffic sign changed from walk to don’t walk and back. And sometimes, when the sign would blink its final don’t walk warning, she would get an excited gleam in her eye and clutch my tiny fingers forcefully and exclaim “Let’s go!” and we would race off into the intersection, always making it to the other side just in time.
There was something melancholy about her rules, their preoccupation with the manifold ways that I could be injured and their foreboding certainty that I would be lost the moment she took her eyes off me or a situation arose that she hadn’t prepared me for. Even her rules of thumb for shopping at the neighborhood supermarket were a little sad. “Don’t ever get attached to anything here,” she would say. “The minute you start liking it, they replace it with something else.”
When she really wanted to feel sad, she turned to the hi-fi we kept in our living room. Digging deep into the milk crates she used to house the family record collection, she flipped past the cheerful Sesame Street soundtracks she had accumulated for me and my sister, and a well-worn copy of Free to Be . . . You and Me that promised a new country of green fields and shining seas; past the psychedelic copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, with its construction-paper insert of a fake mustache and epaulets that I was not allowed to cut into even though the page clearly said cut here; past the Bette Midler albums and the cast recording of A Chorus Line, with their exotic descriptions of adult activities and hilarious, forbidden words like “tits” and “ass,” until she stopped at a record by a fuzzy-haired young singer named Janis Ian called Between the Lines.
Tucked far away in my bedroom, I could hear the soft guitar bossa nova of the title song, and through the walls I could just about make out the lyrics, about desperation and Friday-night charades, and high school girls with clear-skinned smiles who married young and then retired, and a quietly chilling refrain about what it means to learn the truth. I knew my numbers well enough to count how many years it would be until I reached that apparently terrible age of seventeen, and how many had elapsed since my mother had been that old. But I could no more imagine what I would think or feel then, or how she thought or felt, than I could comprehend how adults put on their jackets all by themselves without laying them upside down on the floor in front of them. I had watched school years come and go, and the seasons transition from winter to summer to winter again, but I hadn’t been on the planet long enough to know that when things changed, sometimes they didn’t change back.
What I could understand about the song was that my mother appeared to have less in common with the awkward girls lamented in its lyrics—ravaged faces, lacking in the social graces—than with the beauty queens its singer coolly set herself apart from. I knew, to look at her, that my mother was beautiful, and I knew it long before Sigmund Freud told me to think that. If I looked around our apartment, I could see that its other male tenant, wherever he was, had turned it into a shrine to her, filling it with framed photographs from every era that he knew her: a trophy from some long-ago fishing trip, as he stood with one arm around a giant marlin and the other around her, her sun-dappled skin wrapped tightly in a bikini; a goofy relic from a costume party when she wore a rented wedding dress and he wore a T-shirt meant to look like a tuxedo. They did not yet have me in their lives, and still, somehow, they were happy.
In the camphor-scented residences of my grandparents, I had seen the most tangible and luminescent tribute to her divinity: the tear sheet from an old modeling campaign she had done for Johnson & Johnson shampoo, in which she was asked to do no more than tilt her head to one side and hold a brush to the shimmering oscillations of hair that flowed in jet-black waves from her head. Her carefree manner in those pictures seemed utterly incompatible with the stifled sobs that accompanied her Janis Ian listening sessions. What could someone so pretty be unhappy about?
Long after my mother had put me and my sister to bed, when the sirens had stopped screaming and our darkened apartment was filled with only the murmur of our refrigerator and the occasional rasp from Froggy down below, he would come home. I would hear him first at the front door, the metallic tinkling of steel against steel as a key wandered its way into the lock and turned the tumblers, then the sighing of floorboards giving in to his weight as he lurched and lumbered from room to room, shuffling from the foyer to the living room and stopping at my bedroom door. A trembling hand would tousle my hair, and an ample body would wrap his arms and legs around me and envelop me in its warmth, so close that I could feel his stubble against my own bare cheek and a warm tickle ran up my neck each time he exhaled. He took rapid, erratic gulps of air, and he would say to me, “Davey, are you up? Can I talk to you?”
“Hi, Dad,” I would answer.
I would listen as he would talk, and talk and talk, about whatever was on his mind. One topic usually prevailed. “You know, David,” he said, removing his glasses from his beaky nose so I could see the sincerity in his wide, round eyes, “don’t you know that sex between a man and a woman is the most beautiful and natural thing there is? It’s okay to want it. It’s okay to want it from a woman. You’ve got to let them know that you want it. That’s how God made the game. But He knew that He couldn’t make the game too easy, right? Or else where would be the challenge? Do you know that it took me years to figure this out? For years I suffered—oh! how I suffered!—when girls would reject me. Do you know that your mother is the first woman who didn’t turn me down? She showed me that it was beautiful and wonderful. I don’t ever want you to be scared. I don’t ever want you to suffer like I suffered.”
Less frequently, he would tell a recurring story about his father. “Do you know, David,” he told me on many occasions, “I was once rummaging around in the glove compartment of his car and found a glass eye? And I knew it was his, but for so long, I was too scared to tell him. Finally, one day I got up the courage to tell him, and I said, ‘Dad, I know you wear a glass eye, and I want you to know I don’t think any less of you.’ And do you know what he said? He said, ‘Gerry, if it hadn’t of been for that glass eye, I could have been president.’ And I hugged him and I kissed him”—by now he was shivering and choking on his own tears—“and I said, ‘Dad, you always could have.’ ”
Sometimes he wanted to pass on bits of philosophy and wisdom he had picked up in his travels, whose usefulness he knew I would not grasp right away. “You know that when somebody dies,” he would say, “they aren’t really gone, right? As long as we keep them in our hearts and remember them, they live on forever, don’t they?”
When his lesson had ended, my father would prostrate himself on the surface created by my and my sister’s adjoining beds, and he would fall asleep, snoring loudly. Eventually, I would drift off, too, and when I woke up in the morning, he would be gone, leaving me to wonder if I’d dreamed it all.
Just as I believed that everyone lived as we did, in bustling, overcrowded metropolises, surrounded by bums and decaying brownstones and high-rise apartment complexes that stretched into the clouds; and that everyone went to a private school and was transported there each day by a private van that picked him up and dropped him off at his front door; and that everyone was Jewish to the extent that we were Jewish and knew who was not Jewish because they not only exchanged gifts on Christmas but also went to church, or because they were black, I believed that all families operated as ours did. There was a mother whose job it was to do all the household chores, to cook and clean and raise the children and give them their Oreos before bed, and there was a father who did whatever he did, at whatever hours he did it, and was thus entitled never to be questioned about it.
Somehow I knew that I was the only boy whose father confided in him as mine did, who trusted his son so completely and had such faith in his intellect and maturity that he would make it his mission to prepare his offspring, aged five or six or seven, for these stark grown-up lessons in sex and death and missing eyes. Meanwhile, all my peers would have to wait to discover these things when an indifferent world and callous experience forced the lessons upon them. Separated though we were by some thirty-seven years, I thought my father saw in me an equal and a second self. I thought I had a special friend.
Unlike any other person I had known so far, my special friend was not the same man at all times of day. There was the exuberant, affectionate husband and father who referred to the marital bed he shared with my mother as the “Our Bed,” a reminder that my sister and I were always welcome in it, too. He had no shortage of diminutives for me, either: in his lexicon, I was the Ace; I was his Pal; I was the Wild Man; I was the Edge Man, so called for my preference for sitting at the farthest, most dangerous precipice of the Our Bed; I was Pizza Head, for the time I fell noggin-first into a pizza he and my mother were eating on the Our Bed.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Cocaine's Son by Dave Itzkoff. Copyright © 2011 by Dave Itzkoff. Excerpted by permission of Villard, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.