The Son, He Must Not Know

By Michael Brodsky

So much bloody effort required to procure the toy, the toy that is a man’s, a father’s, rightful due. All day, a day of calm, of springlike pronouncements, though of a pomp foreign to spring itself, yet towards evening a steady dark prison-bar drizzly downpour, and at the very moment when, having dragged home, to homey ground, the gadget vital to their operation, I had still to go out and borrow my toys from the storehouse.

Through the rain I carried my toys, after the toymaker tried, having never laid eyes on me before, to make pleasurable conversation and to show that as long as I paid my way there would be no pronouncements over a sick man’s taste.

Smuggled into the home-front once I was sure the son was in bed, cuddling up with his bear, the toys, kept in their shell, were consigned to the closet until I was absolutely ready to proceed, that is, done with ablutions and with at last no reason on earth to be called away from the degradation site, labeled DS on the grid of my afflictions. And so, seating myself, I gave way to what the toys had to offer in the way of a slant on that self. It was hard this time, I must confess, to remain synchronized with the way of the toys, either because they were moving far too fast or not at all and so I had to fill, disappointed, their void with my own movement.

The son, he must not know the excesses, that is, the essence, of the father for in his father’s house there are many closets. And so, the son, he must not know. After a night of riots he, the father, had to dispose of its–night’s–toys as adroitly as he knew how. He tiptoed into the bedroom where wife and mother was breathing too lightly and placed them high up on the

closet’s highest shelf. There they lay, until daybreak, for after a night of riot–

the malice aforethought of the toys having once again clogged every crevice of his own invention–the father found it harder than usual to sleep, as was his custom, till noon, being constantly interrupted by morbid anticipation of the rites of return. For what is borrowed must be returned and each toy was a borrowed toy. Of course, the father could have bought a toy, many toys, but on some level he must have preferred the borrowing even if, precisely because, it involved a borrowing visit and a returning visit (whereas an outright buying would have involved but a buying visit).

He tossed and turned, his dreams illuminated by a spasmed sketch of what they, in the toy store, must think of him, a grown man, head of household, returning what he was bound by law to return. The toys had been ejected from the gadget needed to operate them at home, to make them go. The toys were in the closet. But even if safely above the son’s reach did this mean some toy was not still and at the same time inside the gadget, purring. Acts normally mutually exclusive were no longer so now that it was a question of fathers and sons, or rather, of fathers being found out, caught in the act, by sons, suspicious since a long time of something yet still not sure of that for which they were searching.

So he kept getting up to verify, not the continued presence of the toys on the highest shelf in the house, for that placement did not exclude their–the toys’–continued presence purring in the gadget slot reserved, in the living room, for any given toy. So he kept getting up to verify the nonpresence of the toy in the gadget’s roomy, furry slot. But done verifying it was as if he had never verified or done far far less than verify. It was as if he had sabotaged all possibility of verification at some point unspecifiable in the very near future, of daybreak in the city. But such uneasiness did manage to momentarily quell the uneasy spasms familiarly preparatory to returning the toys and meeting their maker, now his maker.

The day dawned grim and bluish. A vacation day for him, no work, only drizzle, only the curve of self-generated tasks to appal the vacancy defined by no tasks imposed from without. He took the toys down from the shelf and when the apartment was empty at last marched with them out into the soccer field towards the subway station. He sat down on a bench in the soccer field, there where his son had so often played and he had refused without even the slightest hint of a reason for his aversion to come and watch. He sat himself down and removed the toys from their hide, to make sure he had them all, for there were several. He counted them over and over and over, fighting against distraction by their lurid surfaces. And then he put them back in their hide and their hides back in the bag nondescript as any other bag, only more so, more so. And he continued his walk across the soccer field, and along the river smelling of sulfurous waste. A solitary tug, secretly, expertly green though blue and white to the unpracticed eye–He, the father, wished that some one could keep him on the soccer field by the river as long as possible, making the starkest novelty out of its penury of props, its wintry staffage. He, the father, wished that some thing would weld him forever to the contour of the field and to the river beyond and to the sulfurous hide of that river beyond.

But the presence of all the toys in all their hides and all those hides in their bag did not prove that the toys were not still at home, in the gadget’s slotty slit, just waiting to be discovered by the son on his return from school, satchel slung over his shoulder, mouth a-work with bubble gum, a normal lad, with no need, with every right not, to be afflicted by the sins of the father’s toys. There was no warranty that the toys, every single one of them, were not still at home, in the place most conspicuous for a son’s recovery.

How he dreaded the moment of the toys’ return to their maker, moment of contact with the smug little faces of the makers, at war among themselves yet never averse to parasitizing some plausibly common enemy shot down, compliments of this ghastly addiction, in their midst. How he loathed their conspiratorial glances over the counter but not, contrary to what they believed, over his head. For they assumed one so preoccupied with so many toys must be a bit pudgy thereabouts, either to be desiring so many in the first place or from the self-abuse consequential to mismanagement of those so many. Maybe it wasn’t even the number of toys. But he had to guard against assuming that others shared his belief in the number of borrowed toys somehow mitigating the scandalousness of the activity they enjoined. The toy activity.

How he, the father, dreaded return of the toys, the waiting for them to verify that all the toys were in fact intact, as pure of defect as when they had been rented a day ago or several years ago, during puberty’s perilous midnight. But now, he saw it now, under the soccer field’s leafless catalpas, his only guarantee that all the toys had been returned, were, that is, no longer on the highest shelf in the house or in the toilet or in the gadget’s innermost furry slot of a slit–the only guarantee would stem from a protracted attendance on their–the makers’–perpetration of a merciless scrutiny upon the body of the toys. So the act that he had most dreaded and often did not wait to undergo completely (imagining as he fled that he heard those makers’ sneering imprecations on his sloppy elusiveness)–the very act he most loathed…was the act he now most craved to reassure himself that he had managed successfully to withhold, far from his schoolboy son, all the evidence, all the brandishable evidence, of his affliction. So this must be the purpose of the toy life–to create these shifts in perspective, i.e., meanings–preferably on a soccer field denuded of all bloom and at best impaled on a few catalpa stumps. Only through the toy act could a single event–encounter–come to have an opposite valence at last. Now he was looking forward to the encounter he had dreaded most among all those constitutive of the act of toying. Now he was looking forward to his meeting with the makers, the smug little makers, or rather, “looking forward to” had a new meaning, a capsized meaning. Now he was hoping, the father was, to prolong the very event that he had most dreaded and that had accounted for so much sleeplessness. An encounter with his makers was the crucial confirmatory finish to a night of riot, merest hallucination outside the context of such a finish. If he had bought those toys instead of renting them then there would have been no encounter to be looking forward to and so he might have been ended up channeling the frenzy now consecrated to mastering horrified anticipation of their makerly contempt–elsewhere, far far far from whatever it was that made the act of toying an authentic act. He might, living the toy life without benefit of the straitjacket of return, have ended up a toy himself, bandied about on the trading floor.

And so bravo I say, he said, bravo! bravo! for the makers eyeing him smugly, eyeing smugly my overnight gluttony. He thought once again of leaving the toys in a hurry, without awaiting the truculent nod, reluctantly conferred, that all was as it should be. But then there would be no craved guarantee from without, definitive because obtained under conditions of excruciating shame. But hadn’t he opened up the nondescript sack on the soccer field to verify that indeed all toys, beneath the catalpas, were present. But verification could not negate–couldn’t he get that through his thick fatherly skull–some other moment in the process. For the reality of the toys was a process and his sullen stabs at verification could only injure that process. All stages coexisted. There was no such thing as contradiction. The toys were in his hands on the soccer field, there where the tugs only appeared to be bluish grey, yet still at home, not even on the highest shelf but inside the furry slit of the gadget, secreted in the most attention-getting way, hidden in a way that was more overt, more of a message, than throwing them, unzippered, across the kitchen table. For no verification, no such prophylaxis was as powerful as the image of that horror: the son’s promised end of coming straight upon them, the toys, and failing to himself digest these leavings of his father’s trespass. That was a film more gripping than any definitive verification had the power to impair. That was more powerful than verification/nonverification. The horror pursuant to the son’s discovery and consequent revulsion subsisted, then, in a plane that was vastly inaccessible to the comfort of data derived from measly stratagems of verification.

I circled around the site several times, making sure nobody I knew was within eyeshot, and soon the whole street was deserted as if alert to the crucialness of the spectacle. But at the moment of entering the toy boutique I was still not clear whether in fact some of the toys were not still at home and in a position supremely compromising to the delicate boyhood of my son, and so I was torn between running home to verify, that is, re-verify, and allowing the maker to spread out each item for inspection, a common enough procedure, but one for whose entirety I never allowed myself to remain, being so overwrought as I was with fearing despair at the visible grimaces of his contempt for my predilections, whereas, in fact–I could see it now!–strictly speaking–I could see it now!–inspecting he was never in the least interested in the light each toy might cast, in its present linkage to my bulk, on this or that paraphilia of the moment, but rather, but only, in determining whether they–all my toys together–were still shipshape enough to rent to some other.

So here is where telling rescues the obvious, one stumbles on the unforeseen and what is the unforeseen but articulation of the obvious, the all-too-obvious, the too obvious to be rescued, that is, articulated, and therefore transformed into something new and fragile. He, the toymaker-cum-store manager, alone with his tools on a windy night in the middle of the day, was suddenly and already a pivot point, a pillow shot, resonating towards the next customer, his eyes greedy with anticipation of just the oleaginous defect to displease that worthy, whereas I was still slumbering (misreading his gaze) in the present casting a retroactive ray of reprobation on the night’s riot spread out before him and in which he had not the slightest interest, veering as he was futurewards.

Between the two of us–the two of us incarnated in the gaze I lent him–we embodied past, present, and future, thereby transmogrifying a simple stolid encounter stuck in a single time zone. I waited for him to compute the sum of toys and assure me with an indifferent grunt all was in order, and therefore no need for fear, at home on the sofa, the bed, the highest shelf, in the toilet, of their continued presence. He grunted but no grunt satisfied. Perhaps he was being strangely negligent and miscomputing. How get a definitive response. He was waiting for me to leave, no further reason to stay. If only I could manage to substitute some anguish irrelevant to all this so as to distract myself from its overwhelming resonance in a world otherwise anguishless. But no anguish was forthcoming, no other anguish materializing to create a sense of far too many anguishes to permit focus on a single one.

So nothing to do but trudge out into the inscrutable cold, under the horizon blood-red as a mallow’s subtropical heart, except where pierced for all time by skyscraper accessories: belts, fins, scrimshaw. Nothing for it but to button up and leave and assume that nothing had been left behind at home for the son to uncover, even if that image, of his coming home to my vices, was so mesmerizingly veridic as to vitiate every conceivable reassurance of its impossibility. How annihilate it, that sonny image, or somehow make friends with it, how.

The son must not know yet the son must know. I want the son to know. About the toys. Father-son-toys. Why not be more explicit? Why not call things by their right names? But to call the toy by its right name is to impoverish it, to extract the beautiful aura conferred, through no fault of its own, by toy, that is a wrong name and at the same time a more generous, general name. No thrashing free of this menstruum of wrongness and greater generosity. Father-son-toy. The soccer field swamped with tugs and catalpas. It must be called a toy but not just for purposes of concealment. For purposes of aggrandizement, not of myself, the father, but of the experience with which I have been burdened, saddled, through every fault of my own, and to prove myself, father, noncommensurate with the fit of a certain straitjacket–father.

The toy debauch, the toy affliction, the toy affair, demonstrates among other things that the act most loathed–encounter with a clerk of the court–is the act most devoutly wished because the only road albeit through shame to authentic warranty. The toy episode, the toy affair, demonstrates that the toymaker’s scowl, because it inflicts a painy shame and shameful pain, does not lie, installs me in a world beyond the need for verification where contradictions no longer rampantly subsist untamed by the law of mutual exclusion. The scowl ensconces at last in a world of either/or. Either the toys were returned or they remain on the highest shelf in the soccer field’s smallest closet. When my son came home the toys were definitively gone. He never suspected the enormity of my debt to toys, to their maker and taker. He never suspects that it is only through this marginal event that I am able for the first time to tell the father/son disease as I live it, as it was meant to be told. And by naming wrongly and in general–father, son, toy–marginality salvages itself from the slagheap of the too-specific and becomes everybody’s autobiography, that is, cure. Only through toys, oh my son, and the father-son-toy triad, oh my son, do I worm notochord into that robust territory (of father-son business ventures: foreign direct investment in good health and good housekeeping) too long estranged from a claimstaking prerogative as rightful as anybody else’s; my own.

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About Michael Brodsky

Michael Brodsky was born in 1948 in New York City and still lives here. He is the author of eleven books of fiction that investigate the philosophical experience of being, including ***, Three Goat Songs, Dyad, X in Paris, Xman and Detour, for which he received the Ernest Hemingway Citation of P.E.N. He is also the translator of Samuel Beckett's play Eleutheria. His latest novels are We Can Report Them (1999) and the vastly expanded version of Detour (2003).

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