The Family Business

for CM

“A young man in the dark am I
But a wild old man in the light
That can make a cat laugh, or
Can touch by mother wit
Things hid in their marrow bones . . .”
W.B. Yeats, “The Wild Old Wicked Man”

We have an old man who lives upstairs.

It’s my fault, really, I said he could stay.

One day he arrived at our doorstep, it was the middle of February, and he was dressed as an inebriated Santa Claus.

He said he’d come looking for the perfect dusk-licked breasts
that could be rude to shadows like petulant Cassandras,
but suddenly burst into the flight of doves
startled out of a ruptured storm gutter,
that cooed cherubically when you cupped them in your hands,
for big beautiful nipples that stared into his eyes
like the brown cow irises of sunflowers, irresistibly textured,
as though the fingertips could impregnate with the slightest touch,
for the thick pubis like a moment of wooly black godthought
before the orbing out of heaven and earth,
and for thighs that were like miles and miles of a lost highway
stretching around to the dark side of the moon
where they waited to be ridden for the hushed secrets
of their long cloistered lushness.

He wanted a navel like an eggcup, lightly downed
and perched over a little slope of stomach, and hips,
vast hips like the bearing cliffs smoothed and shaped
by that fat-fingered breadmaker, the devastating sea,
hips that could hoist up the plateau of a wilderness
into a freshly risen Eden.

He said he had followed a star.
He pointed up and across the street to where a yellowed street light flickered.

I liked the way he ogled my wife, as though he could have done great harm if he weren’t so old, so destroyed.

His words were luxuriant oils, ointments of indulgence.
And we, whose habit it was to cherish, but never use, exquisite things,
must have longed to feel our decorous little humilities grow smarmy.

I invited him in for dinner, and he never left.

My wife was less enthusiastic, but I told her: I am a poet and must do such things.

Since, she has grown used to the old man, almost. When she goes into his room to remind him to take his medicines, and he pretends he’s dead, but that his bedcovers have fallen aside to expose his withered genitals, she is no longer shocked.

She enjoys reading his latest suicide note, and does so aloud at his bedside, shifting her weight from foot to foot as if standing near an ancient radio’s buzz as her favorite program comes on.

She tells me, “They are like two old prunes stuck together in their sugars and one horrible little strip of discarded bacon left in the pan, unworthy of breakfast.”

I worry that this may be my fate someday, as well, but I don’t tell her. I have not decided whether she looks upon the old man’s genitals with empowerment or disgust.

Our son, who is four, doesn’t understand—is the old man an uncle? A grandfather? Sometimes the old man makes him explode into giggles, other times, ball in terror. Our refrigerator is plastered with crayon simulacra depicting the old man’s daily exploits in utterly Homeric fashion.

The other day, I caught the old man dragging my boy up a hillside with a large hammer and a railroad spike.

“What is going on here?!” I panted as I caught up to them.

“We must nail his foot to the hillside. Come, grab his other arm.”

“You will do no such thing, old man!” I said.

“It is to honor our father, Lame Vulcan!” he replied, quite astonished at my objection.

“He who has been toiling so long,
sweat-stroked and sooted in the shithouse of heaven!
Forging and plotting, pounding in the heat, crafting
little tongue-petalled flowers out of colored tissue papers,
all the while feeling the mad weather in His shins!

“He has been cuckolded again, and His anger breaks
the wings of moths over an anvil!”

“No it doesn’t,” I said curtly, grabbing my boy.

“But his limp, his limp!” whined the old man.

After ten minutes of arguing, we finally compromised. We all affected a ceremonial limp on our way back to the house.

My wife looked up from her gardening at three ages of limping men heaving their disagreeable legs along like sledgehammers through the bleached solemnity of the street,
each with his own special countenance of miseries,
feeling his heart banging
like a toy cannon firing diamonds
at a charging brigade of uniformed chimpanzees
pedaling artificial currencies . . .
feeling: newly born.

During the holidays, the old man talks only of the devil like he was a fallen comrade, evokes his name at the beginning of meals in a lewd forgery of grace, digressing and digressing as the mashed potatoes turn into snowballs.

“. . . and the time that you explained to Eve that the penis
was like a kind of fruit
from which you must suck the seeds
to fully enjoy its sweetness,
and she was willing,
for she so liked the sweetnesses of fruits . . .”

Then he’d grind a lump of coal in a parmesan cheese grater and sprinkle it over his cold food, and then he’d begin to chew, painfully, like a sagged Holstein.

My wife’s parents dislike the old man. They say nothing, but I can tell they think he’s a kind of infidel. This alone is probably a good reason to keep him.

The old man will sit in his room into the wee hours, just him and the dog, to whom he tells mournful stories of lost love, and they lean into each other weeping copiously and howling like wolves over their pageant of salt.

The dog licks the old man’s tears from his cheeks and nose, each lick like lighting a candle for the dead, and the old man laces his fingers into the dog’s fur and kneads her loose gray skin. I walk by the open doorway with a midnight bourbon, and I too want to be among the weeping and furry, but I don’t go in.

Last month, there was an evening he didn’t come down for dinner, and as we ate by ourselves, he leapt from his bedroom window and fell to the ground like a pocked chunk of moon right outside our dining room. We looked at each other in silence for a second, then the old man gathered himself up into a moose of contusions and oozed in through the front door.

He was wearing a now crushed and disheveled pair of wings fashioned out of coat hangers and bed sheets.

“No thank you, I’m not hungry,” he mumbled leprously as he limped past us and back up the stairs, although we had not asked.

After dinner, I went up to his room with a plate of food, and he told me he was busy circumnavigating his bed, and that he planned to write a novel about it. He has put on a fake Russian accent.

“I vill be za first person vith a fake Russian accent to circumnavigate his bed and write a novel about it,” he explains with a kind of stoic, cold war heroism.

The old man has a nasty habit of calling on us. He takes his wind-up alarm clock and throws it, concussing and clattering, down the stairs where it finally comes to a rest, buzzing obnoxiously.

I bring the clock, silenced, back to his room, stomping up the stairs, and peer into his eyes like a saber-toothed tiger ready to take dictation. He is working on his will again.

“I am leaving you the Family Business,” he says.

We’ve heard this before and doubt very much that there is such a thing. We’ve become accustomed to nodding along with his proposal with suspicious affection. I nod once again.

“Yes,” I say, “the Family Business.”

“It is important to me,” he goes on, “that you do the honorable thing, run the business well and pass it on to your own children when you have grown too old, and they have grown old enough.”

We have, politely, asked the old man what sort of business the Family Business is, but he has been reluctant to tell us out of the fear that we will try to persuade him to alter his will.

But, this time, he is ready to tell me. He has even put on Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony as mood music and erected some makeshift spotlighting out of table lamps and scarves.

“It is the Business of Making,” he dramatizes.

“Ah,” I say, “so . . . now I can become the Count of Monte Cristo.”

“You are always thinking of revenge,” says the old man with an expression half smile, half frown that negates itself, “but that will pass.”

I leave the old man to his Dvorak and go back downstairs to tell my wife. “But you already make things that come to nothing,” she tells me.

“Well, I’m afraid we won’t be able to sell the Family Business and retire early to Florida, as we’d planned,” I say and then realize I am still carrying the old man’s clock in my hand like a loser at the game of Hot Potato.

Last night, my wife rolled over in bed with the moonlight sitting on the floor behind her, impassively. “I think we should get divorced,” she said.

I was frozen. I tucked the blankets around my shoulders like a poultice.

“We should get divorced, and then, then I will marry the old man, and then you can live in the upstairs bedroom growing mad and hairy. While the old man sleeps in this bed, I will creep upstairs to find you playing dead, your cock lolling out from beneath your covers. There will be a suicide note on the nightstand, and I will pick it up and read it out loud like a grammar school teacher in horn-rimmed glasses with three buttons worth of cleavage:

Oh, let it be known that I died, a weary old man
in need of just one outrageous night of fucking,
just one moist night of love inside the fist-tight cunt
of a younger woman, so that I could keep drawing breath.
And so, like Shelly’s Ozymandias, I say—
Look on my works, Ye Mighty, and despair.”

I blinked, and the heat started to come back. That night, my wife and I were happy we’d met the old man who came looking for the perfect dusk-licked breasts.

My fingers played upon her body like the fingers of a man who can play Chopsticks on a piano, or maybe the melody half of In the Mood, but nothing else . . . doesn’t read music. But it is a good song, and I play it with enthusiasm, and she was willing, so I played on and on, verse after verse.

We were both as ravenous as Grail Knights at a feast, just come back empty-handed again, famished, dirty, and raw, brandishing new wounds like scanty, slutted fox pelts.

We heard the dog howling her rendition of Old Man River into the numb plasters of the house, and the house reeled and creaked its heft about, dancing like a sequoia in the earth’s lap to appease the obstreperous wind.

Our son slept in his tiny bed, gigantic, like a dragon sleeping on the strange gold of its dreams, and the old man sank into his freshly-circumnavigated bed like a baby sinking deeply into a plushly-furred Russian hat, picked up a pen to launch the fast ships of his novel into its rosy-fingered dawn, and wrote:

In za beginning . . .

[see note on poem]