5 HOW MANY SOLIPSISTS
If your father walked out on you when you were eight years old, how much of him would you remember? Of Woody I remembered much. The way he always smelled of Old Spice and the panatelas he smoked. The hand magic he could do, like making a quarter disappear (and then not giving it back, to teach me a lesson in credulity). The frequent, unexplained absences, which I realized long after the fact were either undercover stints on the snuke or time in jail. And then the final big disappearance, which he made worse, I think, by perpetrating the false hope of his imminent return. This he did with a string of postcards that, as a sort of running gag, bore portmanteau photographs of that mythical western critter, the jackalope, all furry haunches and grafted antlers. They often contained handwritten riddles like –
Q: How many solipsists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Who wants to know?
– and were all signed the same way, “Yours, Woody.” Not “love,” note. My father could lie the creases off a co-ed’s culottes, but the useful fiction of affection escaped him. He knew he couldn’t sell it, so he didn’t try. Nor had I any illusions. My mother and I were never more than appendages in his life, of that we were sure. And appendages break. The postcard flow dwindled over time, then petered altogether out.
Later, when I started on the snuke, word of his adventures occasionally reached me by roundabout means. I’d meet a grifter who knew a grifter who’d worked a government grants thing with him, or a Jake who’d note a resemblance and say, “You’re not that son of a bitch’s son, are you?” I often wondered if word of my exploits ever reached him. Was he proud that his son had followed in his roguish footsteps? Or could he not give a rat’s ass? I tried to track him down once, just for drill, but apart from the aggrieved screeds of several women who’d discovered themselves to be his coetaneous wives, I didn’t get close. When you’re a master of the vanishing act, it’s no trick to stay lost. As to how he’d found me, I didn’t bother to wonder. The way I’d been lighting up the media with my name and picture, I was practically on MapQuest.
“Ouch, shit!” That’s me savaging my thumb with a hammer instead of hitting the little wooden dowels that connect the kickboard bracket of the Reåd shelving system to the left and right support struts. And that’s because I’m thinking more about my father than about hammers and dowels – and lying to Allie with my silence, which is making me edgier than I let on.
I don’t know why I didn’t just come right out and tell her. Maybe I thought she wouldn’t believe me, would just tab the revelation as “intrigue for the sake of intrigue.” Or if she did believe me, what then? She’s supposed to welcome my biggest inspiration and worst influence with open arms, just when we’re clinging to so frail a valence of normalcy? She didn’t know my father. Okay, hell, I didn’t know my father, either, but it seemed unlikely that he’d pack a whole big mess of normal in his Gladstone. That’s not how he rolled.
Plus let’s not forget he was wearing a dress.
But the alternative, I realized as I sucked the sting out of my thumb, was to deny Allie critical information about the goings-on inside my head. Not quite in the class of an alcoholic sneaking a drink, but sneakiness of a sort just the same. I figured if I was so unwilling to clue in my beloved to the sudden strange appearance of my own flesh and blood, this in itself was a sign that I’d better come clean.
So I did. I was really afraid she’d see it as a setup of some kind, another Hoverlander effort to scrub Operation Citizen, but all she said was, “We’ll have to invite him to dinner.”
“Not a good idea,” I said.
“What, you don’t think he’ll like me?”
“Did you not hear the part about the dress?”
“So he’s trans. I’m not gonna hold that against him.”
“He’s not trans.”
“How do you know?”
How indeed? After all, after all these years, my dad could not have been much more than a shadow in my mind, the sum of my recollections and his reputation. Still, there are some things you know in your gut. I didn’t know Woody, but I knew him. Or let’s say that if the apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree, then the apple can learn much about the tree just by considering itself. Had I come to town looking for me, so garish a lady costume would not be transvestite plumage.
It would be camouflage.
Because the thing is, when most people look at you, they don’t really see you at all. They judge a book by its cover absolutely. Grifters know this, which is why you so often meet them in costumes of one sort or another. Business suits. Coveralls with nametags. Uniforms. Whatever helps them sell what they want you to buy. Most people looking at my dad in a dress would reach the cursory conclusion I’d first reached: this is one serious frump. Then they’d look away, which would be exactly his goal. How do you hide in plain sight? You thwart the urge to seek.
From this I surmised that Woody was being sought. Not so huge a leap. Even from my dim and distant childhood, I could remember instances of him working very hard to deflect the attention of one irate mark or another, which need will arise from time to time when a grift slides sideways. One whole summer he never ventured out of the house without carefully cloaking himself in the fatigues and demeanor of a disabled Vietnam veteran, right on down to the shrapnel limp and loud colloquies with the voices in his head. I thought it was cool: Daddy plays dress-up. But the strategy was sound, for whoever might be after him would take one look at the post-traumatic stress victim, think, well that sad casualty’s not him, and turn their searching eye elsewhere.
“So we’ve got dad on the lam,” I said. “From whom and for what we currently have no clue, but he’s working the shade and fade damn hard.”
“Why is he even on the street at all?” asked Allie. “Wouldn’t it be safer just to lie low?”
“Safer, sure, but a trap of a different sort. You know this, honey. Once you lose your freedom of movement, you lose your options. Holing up just puts you in a hole.”
“True,” she nodded. She settled down onto the living room couch and I paced nearby, each of us doing what a grifter does when presented with a puzzle like this, mentally teasing the pieces into place. Presently, Allie said, “Since he’s not lying low, he must really want to see you.”
“Not want. Stronger than want.”
“We’ve been estranged forever. Now he gets wind of me on the six o’clock news or wherever, and maybe this sparks some father/son nostalgia in his mind. He can’t know how I’ll react to seeing him. If he has the time, he tests the water first. Email, phone call, maybe a jackalope postcard.”
“What kind of postcard?”
“Nothing. Never mind. All I’m saying is, no test, ergo, no time.”
“Does he know how good you are?”
“Let’s say he does.”
“Then he needs help.”
“And rates me as the Red Cross.”
“So, how do you feel about that?”
“Allie, I don’t know. I know I’m supposed to be carrying all these abandonment resentments, and maybe I do and just don’t know it. But knowing what I know about him and about me, I figure that to hate him is to hate me. As far as I can tell, we’re chips off the same block.” Boy ambled in from the kitchen and taunted me with the tennis ball in his mouth. This particular slobbery brand of tug-of-war, where Boy chomped his ball in a death grip and Allie or I tried to pry it free, had emerged as one of his favorite games. He’d play it as long as our patience would last. He usually won, too, since the only way to get the ball out was misdirection, and Boy’s elemental brain did not respond too quickly to trickery. He was like a certain stripe of mook: too dumb to fool. I grabbed the ball and yanked to no particular avail. We growled at each other. It was fun. “Part of me is flattered,” I said. “My dad was always kind of legendary, you know? I mean, highly regarded in his circles. The two words you mostly heard were ‘creative’ and ‘fearless.’ I guess if he’s coming to me for help…”
“Then that’s acceptance.”
“Acceptance, yeah. But trouble, too.” Allie’s arched eyebrow encouraged me to continue. No doubt she’d already formed her own hypothesis about what kind of trouble a runaway Hoverlander could cause, but she wanted to hear it from me. “We’re supposed to be going straight, right? I have no idea what direction Woody is headed, but I’ll bet my bankroll that straight isn’t it.”
Allie mulled this for a moment, then asked, “What’s that stupid thing I’ve heard you say? ‘Make the latest possible decision based on the best available information?’”
“Oh, that’s stupid, is it?”
“A little, yeah. But why don’t we do that? Wait awhile. See what happens. After all, he may not even contact you. Maybe he just wanted you to know he’s out there.”
“Maybe he just wanted a bunk bed.”
I deked Boy with disinterest. He let down his guard, the ball came free in my hand, and I’d won another round of How Dumb is a Dog? This, however, left me holding a soggy tennis ball, so who’s to say who won? I threw the ball and Boy bolted after it with a dog’s abandon, scuttling across the hardwood floor and banging sidelong into the far wall. Then Allie took up the game and I returned to my Reåd. By midnight, I’d wrestled the bookshelf into shape, and it stood upright in the middle of the room. On a handiness scale of ten, I’d rate myself a six; there were pieces left over. But Allie cast approval on my effort. We were just discussing placement options when a knock at the door startled us both.
It was Vic, as nine and a half times out of ten it would be, and he waltzed in with no thought to the hour, for Mirplovian logic held that if he was awake, then everyone was.
“It’s not like I didn’t check the lights,” he said. “My only concern was you two randy rabbits might be screwing, and who wants to see that?” At this point he noticed the bookshelf. “I like it,” he said, appraising it critically. “Very nice. Very conceptual.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Vic, it’s a bookshelf.”
“Against the wall it’s a bookshelf. In the middle of the room it’s art. You should drape it. Drapes are big right now.” Then, executing a deft conversational pivot, he said, “Hey, check it out,” and rolled up his left shirt sleeve to reveal on his arm a paisley shaped teardrop with a hole in the middle, like the eye on a curvy sperm.
“Vic,” marveled Allie, “you got ink!”
“Yeah, I did,” he said proudly.
I didn’t bother asking why, for clearly this was the next iteration of his artist presentment. See what I mean about costumes? Meanwhile, I thought I recognized the image, but… “Vic,” I asked, “where’s the rest of it?”
“What rest? That’s it. A yin. Half a yin-yang. Totally conceptual.”
“Hurt that bad, huh?”
“Like a motherfuck. I couldn’t even finish. I thought I was gonna pass out.” He cast an admiring glance at his own shoulder. “It is conceptual, though.”
“It is,” I said. “I’ll grant you that. Have you named it?”
“Named? Ooh, no, I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I suggest Half Wit.”
“Ha-ha,” drawled Vic, then pirouetted once again across topics. “By the way, who’s the dude?”
“The guy across the street. If he’s trying to not be seen, he’s doing a lame-ass job.” Vic snickered. “About as lame as his drag.”
I didn’t bother looking out a window to confirm this, for even a Mirplo at his most conceptual couldn’t conjure a cross-dressing lurker out of thin imagination. Then again, just how off my game was I that Vic caught on to the gaff quicker than I had? This business of going straight had its downside in terms of staying sharp. I turned to Allie. “New information, doll. Now what?”
Before Allie could reply, the doorbell rang. Allie shrugged. “Now?” she said. “Now we answer the door.”
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