It’s the Fourth of July and I’ve got hair in my nose and a baseball for a prostate. I’ve got earlobes like ripe pears. I lost my hearing on Guadalcanal. And then fucking Normandy, body-strewn, bullet-pocked. Uncle Sam and God both crept out back for a smoke when they saw what was coming there. And fuck, we did it anyway. Kali. Kaliuga. This age of ours.
I loved them all, those men of mine who died around me on the beach. I carried their souls back with me so they could rest here in their homeland among the maple and the elm. They’re around me all the time now, those men. And that was what America was about back then: my brothers giving it up against Hitler and Mussolini.
Mussolini. Tetrazine. Tortellini. Makes me hungry. After the war all I wanted to do was eat. So I became a caterer. So here I am, feeding Americans in Bermuda shorts on the Fourth of July.
About what could there be less disputation? Except the young know nothing of sacrifice. They will die one day a conquered people if they cannot remember Normandy, if they cannot remember a time when it was hard and they were hungry. I will be long gone then, so what do I care if the country falls to a foreign boot? Still it makes me sad.
We are weak; we have no heroes and we do not care enough. Or we care but not about what awaits our children and what is happening to our cousins in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Brooklyn. And if we were in the shoes of those deafened cousins sprinting under strafing jets toward broken stone walls to cringe in rubble, praying for deliverance from bombing runs and the rounding up of men, our prayers would be as they are everywhere: Please God let the bombing stop, and let them stop rounding up our men and shooting them.
And our prayers, thus uttered, would be acted on with glacial slowness by celestial clerks.
“You want miracles?” the clerk says. “Here’s a miracle: You’re alive! You want the strafing jets removed? We can’t even keep flies off shit. We just make the stuff … Hold, please, there’s a call …” For years you hold the phone, watching the red light blink. In the meantime borders shift. Families bundle their treasures in tablecloths and head out across the mountains, listening for the jets.
And finally in my menagerie of auditory puppets there’s this junkie sax player who lives in San Francisco in a North Beach hotel:
He ties off and watches the first of the fireworks out the window of the Dawn Light Hotel and remembers that pristine elementary school morning when he became a Safety Patrol member and received his white web belt, shoulder-strap and badge. The flag had to be folded into triangles just so. The flag under no circumstances could be allowed to touch the ground. If it did it had to be burned. The burning of the flag would be a ceremony of immense solemnity. But a flag was never burned on his Safety Patrol watch because a flag was never allowed to touch the ground. Folding that flag in the dawn light, the boy saw only a boundless ceremonial perfection. Folding that flag, he saw only the opportunity for belief ever richer, and ritual ever more perfectly executed.
The future junkie sax player loved his country with tears in his eyes. He stood bravely at Sarasota spring training Yankee games and sang “and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” in a quivering preadolescent falsetto; he thrilled at Blue Angels jets forking off into impossible aerobatic arcs; he fought Asian and European enemies by the hundreds in battles enacted each day every day all summer long. He worshipped the gruff, practical GI fathers reared in poverty who fought The War and won it and then fathered his generation. He loved those beery, unshaven, steadily procreating men with the once-muscular bodies now happily gone to pot who taught him above all else: America wins.
Not only did America win but she won fairly, his mother said, according to law and reason. So when she heard that the Bible ladies were still coming to his classroom to tell the story of Mary and Joseph with the aid of easels, biblical backgrounds and felt figures, his mother told the principal that the Supreme Court had affirmed the separation of church and state yet again and so no Bible ladies should be bringing their felt boards into her son’s class.
And the principal said her son could be excused from class when the Bible ladies came. But he loved the Bible ladies because they smelled sweet, because their hands were soft, because they were warm and full of good cheer.
He was a good boy in school and was among those chosen to help carry the easel and the wooden carrying case lined with felt figures of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. He loved carrying those cases. He didn’t want to be excused from class when the Bible ladies came.
His passion for God struggled with his passion for logic and they tore him apart and after a while, after he grew up and left Florida and started playing saxophone and living in San Francisco’s Tenderloin the only place he could find any peace was in heroin.
He watched the fireworks out the window of the Dawn Light Hotel as the drug flowed through his veins. He stared at the explosions: In the beginning was nothing but darkness; then, a sparkly trail up into the sky like a sperm swimming to the stars. Then: Kablooey! A sudden blooming of color over the water, the veins of a rose traced across his retina.
And then falling out of the light: poets and dictators, farmers and salesmen, teachers, mothers, shop clerks all falling out of the brilliance of explosion and color. And here, of course, was the idea of America: many out of one. But the idea had faint hold on him compared to his appetite for oblivion, now keener than ever: his appetite for the soft black sky of sleep. So his chin lay on the windowsill as the heroin crept through him and he slept.
Out of the mouth of the sky flew talismans of grief and revolution, the private and public artifacts of production and desire: smelters and underwear, tires and cock rings, eyeballs and condoms and washing machines, infant symbols of civilization.
He grew sleepy as the heroin sailed his blood like a pirate ship in the night, and then came the slowing of the brain and the sleepy dream of freedom from the body. There was the answer to his unspoken prayers: peaceful sleep, the great reward of revolution. The fireworks went on and on, but without sound.
Soon out of the large American sky came just color, pure color: smooth, aesthetic, unmartial, cleansed by heroin of the explosion out of which it was born. And then finally nothing was left in his head but the sound of his blood bubbling across the surface of his brain like the sea rounding coastal rocks into eternity.
So there I was sobbing in the kitchen over the old soldier who wanted to get buried at Arlington and I think, “I should call my dad.” But then I think, “Get yourself squared away, soldier. Snap out of it.”
I dry the tears and wait a couple of weeks to call dad and then it turns out, just by coincidence, it’s Father’s Day. And I make the call and we have a nice chat. He’s a lovely man.
And then he says, “Now, I know you called me to wish me a happy Father’s Day. So, well, you can consider that obligation discharged.”
And we’re done.
That’s my dad.
Happy Fourth of July, soldier.