The Benefit of Doubt
When I was about eight years old, my father decided to write a novel. He had a plan. He would write three pages a day, and take it one day at a time.
“It’ll pile up like magic,” he said, “and presto! I’ll have a book. If I start today, I’ll have over five hundred pages in six months. How hard will it be? Maybe an hour a day. A major novel in a year, a thousand pages! If I double my output, half a year. Painless. An hour a day.”
The book he decided to write was War and Peace, which he considered the greatest novel ever written, although he had never read the thing. He wrote it in the original Russian, although he had never studied the language. He bought a huge two-volume illustrated set from a Russian-language bookstore, and a dozen spiral notebooks from the local stationary shop. He copied the Cryllic print into his notebooks, and copied the illustrations as well.
“If I am going to write a novel, I might as well write a great one,” he said. “I may be only the second person to write this particular book, but that’s still pretty select company.”
It was an art thing, of course. A performance piece. He was a sculptor, among other things, a welder who excreted three-dimensional monstrosities one piece of found metal at a time, with never a clue about where he was going. He built the book in the same way, blindly fumbling forward, although technically speaking he knew exactly where he was going; it was written on the page in front of him. The War And Peace project was typical of the way he wasted his life. It took him a year and fifty notebooks, but he did it: the second man to write War and Peace, but undoubtedly the first non-Russian speaker to write it in the original Russian.
The letters that form the words in my father’s War and Peace have a blunted, dreamlike quality, approximations of the idea of Russian. And the words float on the pages as though they have lives of their own, which is sort of true. Certainly there was no guiding intelligence behind them.
“This book has been written the way you would draw a spaceship from another planet,” my father said. “If you have no idea what you are looking at, you have to draw exactly what you see, without any idea of what it means. This is a book to be seen, and not read.”
I like to think that if someone who actually knew Russian read my father’s War and Peace they would find a far different story than Tolstoy had produced. Maybe everyone moves to Tibet, or maybe they are all eaten by giant snakes.
He enjoyed writing the book tremendously. To be more accurate, he enjoyed the mindless routine he had invented for himself. He woke up with a smile because he knew exactly what he had to do to make art that day. Copy three more pages of War and Peace. An artist rarely has that luxury. It was very relaxing.
When the year passed, he decided to keep on writing, only in English, and he decided to write original material. He created a blueprint again, to limit the amount of thinking he had to do. He wrote out tremendously long lists, one of characters (Sylvia, anemic milkmaid, Joseph, compulsive strangler), and one of locations (on top of hot-air balloon, inside a wind tunnel). He randomly selected a combination each day, then typed furiously for an hour until his story was done. (Joe strangles Sylvia on top of hot-air balloon). He lowered his quota to a page a day and he stuck to his system. After six months, he announced he had another book done. One hundred eighty-four short stories. He never showed it to me or anyone else. He drilled two holes through the manuscript and bolted it between the front and back halves of a small figure he modeled in clay and cast in plaster. He threw the thing on a shelf, never showed it to anybody. I asked him why.
“Once there was a poor boy who grew up and made a lot of money and joined a yacht club,” he said. “After many years, they made him the Commodore of the yacht club. He went to see his mother wearing the fancy Commodore’s uniform that the club gave him.”
“Look, ma!” he said. “I’m a Commodore!”
“By you, you’re a Commodore,” said his mother. “By me, you’re a Commodore. But tell me. By a Commodore, are you a Commodore?”
“What’s a Commodore?” I said, just to irritate him.
“Forget it,” said my father.
But he was hooked. He liked typing. He wrote a hundred short stories in a hundred days. A couple of novels and several screenplays. He always had something going. I couldn’t say he was really a writer, because the system didn’t work well when it came to quality. None of my father’s writing projects were ever printed, published, or produced. Every professional editor who ever read them always said the same thing: “No continuity and no character development.” It’s hard to develop any kind of flow when you’re simply trying to reach the bottom of the page before your fifteen-minute attention span runs out.
My father wrote with the radio, television, and tape machine going. He had The New York Times crossword puzzle on one side of his desk, a stack of old magazines on the other. On the shelves above him were other distractions, insurance that he would never be in danger of really hunkering down and concentrating. Picture books filled with the warplanes of the world, boxes of old baseball cards, stacks of screenplays, sketch books, dictionaries, almanacs, and anthologies of western art. Not to mention the several hundred figurines he had spread around the apartment. He had everything – from Tahitian fertility gods to Columbian plastic Power Rangers, to black mammies and pappies made in Japan, from Taiwanese kick boxers to a rubber reproduction of Discopolus made by a tire company in Ohio.
My father monitored his word and line production like a schoolboy writing a 1,000-word geography report. I used to catch him counting words under his breath, one finger tracing the lines on his yellow legal pad. He strung out his pages with babble. It didn’t matter to him what he wrote, merely that he covered physical distance on the page. He was a sculptor at heart after all, not a writer. He cared about bulk and volume in real space, not in imaginary voids.
The family story was that my father cut off his left thumb to meet my mother. Insomuch as we had a family and insomuch as it had stories. It was his own story. There was no other family. This story, as almost everything else that my father said, was a lie. I studied the thumb. The white ridged scar flowed down the middle of the thumb from a point about half an inch from the tip for about an inch and then wrapped halfway around the outside of the joint, stopping just short of the second knuckle. With a wound like that, no way could it have come clear off. At most it would have flopped over, but it would still have been attached. When I told him I didn’t think he had cut it off, he just laughed.
“You had to be there,” he said.
He was a nut, an artist nut, which he thought gave him license to do as he pleased, no apologies to anyone, least of all his son. He dressed me up in wacky clothes – pointed wool Tibetan prayer caps, 40-year-old overalls, X-men Halloween costumes in May – and hauled me around with him to art openings, just as his slightly less erratic friends did with their dachshunds. He raised me for the first ten years of my life on a godforsaken street in a neighborhood touted in the papers as the next great bohemian stronghold, the next Soho, the next East Village. It never happened, mostly I think because my father thought it was going to happen.
Nothing he did ever worked. He never bought an apartment, for example, just poured years of sweat and energy into his rented loft only to have it pulled out from under him when the landlord sold the building. We lived there illegally and we had no rights.
He was a proud contributor to the volunteer art economy the artists created for themselves. He hung sheetrock all day, went to cheese parties in the evenings, and painted and sculpted all night (on good nights, nights when he didn’t stay up peering at late-night talk shows through the duct tape webs that held our foggy television set together). He waited for everything. He waited to move, a marionette waiting for his puppeteer. He waited for signs of approval from others before initiating human contact. He waited for studio visits, waited to be reviewed, waited to be picked up by a gallery. He waited for the big break that never came, in the meantime spending all his extra money on paint or film or electric motors. All his friends were like that, too. Losers, all of them.
Reproduction, as opposed to fornication, was an afterthought for the artists, which made me and my father somewhat unusual. Artists had few children because they had no money and because they had no space, but mostly because they had no interest in fragmenting their attention on anything besides themselves and their work. Not many of them, even the heterosexuals ones, ever had children. What nurturing urges they had were buried in the acquisition and the halfhearted maintenance of pets. They owned dogs and cats mostly, but they also collected fish, turtles, rats, mice, and birds.
My parents hadn’t meant to be different; they hadn’t planned for me. I happened and they went with it. They were only together for four years, and during that time they probably lived together for six months. My mother was a very active woman.
They had cats and dogs before I was born. I only remember one of the cats, and that one dimly. I only saw their two dogs one time, I am told, when I was two weeks old. But the animals’ smells lingered in the studio for years. And their ghosts were more real to me than the piled heaps of my mother’s welded steel sculptures, which filled the corners of the studio.
The dogs apparently had the run of the place. Their fossilized turds cracked under my feet and rolled through the studio in the canyons formed by the warps and ruts of the splintering floorboards. They had peed everywhere, leaving dark stains on the sheets of Corten steel in the welding shop and around the bases of my mother’s aluminum fabrications. They left behind as well half-chewed hats, audio tapes, softballs, leashes, and blankets.
I deduced from the evidence left behind that the dogs did not get along with the cats. They apparently forced the cats into an entirely alpine existence. I found ample archeological evidence of their historic struggles. The studio was filled with places of refuge, step ladders from the Dog and Cat Age, which my father had never moved. The top steps of the ladders were all covered with cat fur, white and brown from Ewing, dusty gray from Cartwright. The most significant trace of the cats’ presence in the apartment could only be found on high: fur on shelves, nests atop the homemade closets, desiccated mouse hindquarters along the mantles my father had built to hold his enormous collection of figurines and kickknacks The cats, in their efforts to elude the dogs, seemed to have entirely shunned earth, or at least the floor. I saw them in my mind’s eye, leaping like mountain goats from place to place, never actually setting foot on the ground.
I believe that my parents did nothing to end this interspecies cold war; perhaps they even catered to it. I found innumerable old cans of cat tuna dinners on the upper reaches of the studio shelving, along with kitty litter piled into neat little pyramids dotted with frosted nougats of coal-black cat shit. My parents must have fed the cats up there and made little Berlin airlifts of kitty litter, which they subsequently forgot to retrieve. The most visible evidence of the cats’ presence was the dirty gray streak on the living room wall between the top of the closet and the back of the moldy red-velvet easy chair. The streak was the sliding path they used to get to the kitchen from their hiding places during the detente thaws when the dogs were locked in the studio. My father never bothered to wash and repaint the wall during all my years in the building. And he never said much about the dogs or the cats, no matter how many times I asked. He would just shrug and look away when the subject came up, and his right leg would begin to vibrate.
The dogs’ names were Astrovan and Beetlebug, mutts rescued in various ways from the streets of Brooklyn. Astrovan had visible Shepherd genes, the lope of a wolf, and the glassy bemused stare of a congenital idiot. Astrovan was the one who chased the cats and was responsible for their high-altitude life style. He has a history of abuse He carried a bullet in his left leg, the result of toture at the hands of neighborhood bullies when he was a puppy. My father said you could see the furry bump the hard round pellet made just above the first joint. You could feel it too, could roll it around between your fingers. I don’t know if this was true. But my father said Astrovan had a pleasant disposition, in spite of all this – placid and friendly. He was unafraid of strangers and eager for affection.
Astrovan had post-traumatic stress disorder. He lost his mind every time he heard a strange loud noise of any kind: a backfiring car, the concussive clunk of a closing door, a nondescript thud. When he heard things while he was off his leash in the park, he would run blindly into the street and head for home, my father in hot pursuit.
My father told me that my mother and he eventually had to drive Astrovan to the park, leaving their pickup truck at the entrance. That way Astrovan’s milder panic attacks ended with him simply hiding under the car. When he was truly panicked, however, he would often take off in the opposite direction and run through the neighborhood until cornered.
The second dog was named Beetlebug. My mother found her on the street during her (my mother’s) brief but meteoric career as a marathon runner Beetlebug was, at the moment of discovery, a little sausage-shaped, dirtball puppy cowering in the middle of the street. My mother stopped, scooped, and ran her home without breaking stride. I imagine that my father was unable to muster the energy to begin the argument (too many animals!) that could have ended with Beetlebug’s ejection from the loft.
Beetlebug had a strange personality. She was unpleasant to other dogs and longed only to be caressed, admired, and fed by humans. She became very fat in her doggie middle age. She spent what energy she had sidling up to strangers for handouts and snapping at smaller dogs who threatened her already low ranking in the park’s dog pecking order.
In her younger days, Beetlebug ate audio tapes my mother left lying around on the studio floor next to the boom box. Once inside Beetlebug, the tapes quickly clogged her intestines. Normally her digestive system was able to spontaneously eject the tapes through its own peristaltic actions, frequently late at night, usually when my father was walking directly in front of neighborhood gangbangers.
One night my father came home holding ninety feet of audio tape encrusted with dog shit. Beetlebug had played it out of her butt over the course of a block-long waddle that had been avidly followed by every crackhead in the area. Not knowing what else to do, my father picked up the tape as it had played out of Beetlebug’s rear end, like an old Wall Street stockbroker reading his ticker tape, and carried it home in an awkward cat’s cradle between his hands.
Beetlebug destroyed many expensive tools in my parents’ studio, eating paintbrushes, plastic goggles, the crotches of my mother’s panties, fur hats, and encyclopedias of art, as well as real live works of art. Occasionally, Beetlebug needed high-cost medical intervention. She would wither away to a shadow of herself, stopped up by a plastic knot of Brazilian samba or Frank Sinatra songs. Eventually my parents would recognize the emergency and cough up the money for extraction surgery.
As Beetlebug aged she became an extraordinarily willful dog, utilizing every resource in her pea-sized brain and her pudgy body to maintain world domination. She stole Astrovan’s treats. She buried baked goods – bagels, pita bread, pizza crusts, and challa slices – in sidewalk flowerboxes and in the tiny plots surrounding the stunted pee-soaked trees provided for the neighborhood by its councilman.
Attention was Beetlebug’s obsession. She developed the habit of sitting on the front step at the start of the midday walk and refusing to move until she was begged, kissed, and cajoled into following the walker. Astrovan waited for her on the sidewalk, nosing about in the garbage until Beetlebug was satisfied with the amount of consternation she had aroused. She would then raise up on her four legs and amble along for half a block or so until she was ready for more spotlight, which she would get by tumbling somewhat violently onto her back, where she would lie, feet waving like an overturned beetle, or stiff-legged as a bloated cow corpse, until she was tickled. She could stand on her hind legs too. She would balance for almost a minute at a time, staring expectantly down the block until every one in the vicinity stopped what they were doing and turned to see what was up. Then she would plop back down to all fours and waddle off.
To combat Beetlebug’s destructive tendencies, my parents built a box-like pen in the middle of their studio out of old wooden panel paintings. Whenever both of them left the studio at the same time, leaving Beetlebug without human supervision, they put her into the pen to keep her away from all the things she liked to eat.
The outside of the structure was composed of four murals on slabs of plywood, which my father had begun and then abandoned half-finished. In one painting, a jet black man wearing a white smock stood in a slaughterhouse, surrounded by racks of hanging pig carcasses. On another wall, a small boy faced a firing squad; on the third two naked people sat, abjectly bored, on a tousled bed under a banner that read “Merry Cristmas.” (One night my father noticed the misspelling and added the “h” with large, black magic marker.) The fourth painting, barely begun, was of a man in the middle of a somersault. My father left dog momentos – blankets, empty food dishes, DayGlo red chew toys, and half-eaten wooden sandals – inside the pen. He never took down the pen during all the time we lived in the studio. Reliquaries from saints’ lives.
But there was a prehistoric dog, a third or rather a first dog, which they had had before Astrovan and Beetlebug, before me. A founding they tried to redeem. I discovered him in one of the videotapes which lay in dusty stacks around the studio, the only surviving evidence of my father’s days as a performance artist. I watched the tapes when my father was out of the house, jamming one after another into the old metal VCR (an antique, said the man in the repair shop whenever my father brought it in). I saw my father tell jokes, tear paper, stand on his head, eat donuts in a policeman’s uniform, watch a blank monitor for a solid hour. I watched because I couldn’t believe he could have lived without me.
I was fascinated by the video with the other dog for another reason as well: my mother was naked in it. The video begins with her entrance into the small white room I recognized as the storage alcove at the front of our floor. She is stark naked. She stands for a moment, then gradually dresses, adding layer after layer of thick leather clothing. The door opens and a brindled pit bull bounds in. It is small, no higher than her knee, but as wide as a wheelbarrow, so dark and shiny it reflects sunlight into the camera lens like a mirror. It leaps and leaps and leaps at my mother, tearing at her clothes and chewing on her wrists, snapping at her nose, until it exhausts itself. My mother reaches into a shopping bag and begins smearing the dog with groceries – frozen orange juice, raw eggs, white bread, a salami, raw meat, a box of cookies. The dog wolfs down the food as they both lie, heaps of exhaustion, on the floor. I showed the film once to my father. He didn’t have much to say about it.
“It’s about her family,” he said.
My father followed her on the tape, copying her every move. Naked first, moving quickly and obliquely towards the camera to hide his crotch, then dressing and wrestling with the dog. He didn’t feed the dog, but he became filthy with the flotsam from my mother’s performance. I’m sure he would never have taken his clothes off on tape if it weren’t for her.
“This was an experiment,” he said. “We never showed it to anyone.”
The dog had been left behind by a previous tenant in the building, a sweatshop owner whose leisurewear factory occupied the first floor. The day my parents moved into the space they looked out of the window into the courtyard formed by the buildings and saw a dark form sliding shadowlike around in the dimness below. It was a pit bull, living in a pit. They watched the dog for several days.
The dog never left the pit. It never saw an entire person. Every day around noon a door on the south side of the courtyard opened and a hand emerged holding a plateful of beans and rice. The hand turned and dumped the contents of the plate on the cement patio. The hand retracted and the door slammed shut. The dog lived on those scraps amid piles of its own shit and the bodies of hundreds of rats, which it killed but would not eat. It paced back and forth all day long. It could not climb the fire escape to the roof without cutting open its paws because the people in the factories on the upper floors of the building had heaped piles of broken glass bottles on the lower steps to keep it from wandering into their spaces on hot days when they left their doors open.
After a week of watching the dog from afar, my mother put on all of her leather clothes and went down to the pit to meet the pit bull. My father followed her in his shorts and t-shirt, unable to leave her alone, unable to plan for the future, unable to plan for the worst. The dog was startled to see them but did not attack. It danced around their feet in confusion. My parents removed the glass from the fire escape, and, after some coaxing, the dog climbed the steps to their window and looked into their studio.
My parents opened the window and held out their hands. The dog stared at them for several minutes. They waited. It put its front paws on the ledge and leaned forward. They waved treats. It balanced on the windowsill. They implored. It dropped onto the floor of the studio. It was suddenly huge – the most muscular, the darkest, the most dangerous-looking animal in the world. It was unbelievably beautiful to them, as strange as the man from Mars, as alluring as a movie star. It stepped carefully around the room, flooding the space with its breathtaking otherness.
It had no name, had never been given a name, had never been out of the pit. A previous tenant in the sweatshop had bought the dog as a security measure. When the man moved his business out of the building, he left the dog locked in a basement room. A new factory moved in immediately, but the dog was not found in over a month, still locked in the dark room. It had survived on a diet of rats and its own shit. My parents called it Gutboy, which seemed at once mysterious and supernatural to them, just like the dog itself.
Gutboy became my parents’ responsibility, more or less, since no one else seemed interested. It would be nice to say that they saved the dog, but the story doesn’t have a happy ending. Gutboy’s mind and spirit were damaged beyond my parents’ ability to repair. He carried about him a permanent air of charged violence. My parents never even considered trusting him; he did not engender trust. And Gutboy, in turn, did not trust them. Distrust, in fact, was the only emotion he could truly communicate. He cowered and flitted along the walls of his pit like a psychopath in Bedlam. They never left Gutboy inside by himself.
Gutboy became protective of my mother, and he violently demonstrated his devotion to her. He chewed on her wrists and ankles, and leapt on her at every opportunity in an undeterable fury of addled love. The skin on her forearms and shins was soon a bumpy red pulp of bruises and contusions.
At the core of Gutboy’s protective feelings towards my mother was his deep-seated suspicion of my father, which expressed itself with even greater violence than did his love for my mother. He tried to keep them apart. In cold weather my father would bring Gutboy inside and chain him to the grating that slid on runners across the window. From this position Gutboy controlled the entrance to the apartment my father had built in the back of the studio. My father had heaped up his old cast iron homunculi along the far side of the door, leaving only a narrow passage to the entrance that could not be reached by Gutboy at the full extension of his chain leash. He would not let my father in when my mother was home without a fight.
To get by Gutboy, my father would edge along the door and dart into the room while the dog eyed him warily and moaned a low, menacing growl. In the morning my father would approach Gutboy, hands spread wide on either side of the dog’s head. Gutboy would have to choose one hand to go for and when he did, my father would grab him by the collar with the other hand, clamp him tight against his body, haul open the gate on the window leading to the fire escape, unsnap the chain, throw him out the window, and then slam shut the grating before he could whip around and lunge back into the studio. Gutboy would then resume his previous pit career – killing rats, eating beans and rice, dodging the pipes and metal racks thrown at him by the workers in the building’s sweatshops, until my parents let him back inside again.
Once a day my mother or father took Gutboy for a walk. Gutboy would tear through the streets with the human staggering behind. He was a terrifying animal and all humans fled before him, crossing streets, climbing light poles, jumping on car hoods. The neighborhood tough guys were intrigued by his machismo and wanted puppies. They thought he looked like Mike Tyson, which was true. He was a canine boxer. His thin, acutely oval eyes were so canted towards each other that they described a V on his face. Once a little girl asked my mother if Gutboy was Chinese.
My father would lie on the floor with Gutboy at night and wrestle him, one hand on the dog’s chain – for Gutboy was always ready to lunge for the throat – the other pushing and pulling the huge muscular torso across the floor. Gutboy was not a gentle, loving animal. He never licked either one of my parents, never jumped or danced in anticipation of a walk, never showed the slightest sign of submissiveness. Gutboy wrestled for keeps. He wanted to kill my father.
The three of them were locked in a hopeless viscious cycle. My parents, once they began to care for the dog, saw no way out of the relationship. They could not allow him to return to his previous existence and they felt they had no right to extinguish his life. They had to continue. But Gutboy, his mind liquified into a mush of fear and rage, had no appropriate emotion available in his skull with which to express his dependence on them. Every other organism posed a potentially lethal threat to his survival, so every contact became a desperate contest for dominance. These two humans were no exceptions, merely the latest animals against whom this constant struggle would now be played.
The video shows little of the rage and fear in Gutboy, and only slightly more of the magnificent physical presence that drew them to him in the first place. In it he is a small, dark, wide jumping bean, persistent and tireless as a steam engine. My parents look like bullies, as a matter of fact, knocking Gutboy around, throwing him down and pouncing on him.
I studied the tape, watching my parents’ behavior with great care. Gutboy was part of a dark and mysterious past before me, before other pets, before time. He was a ghost who left few traces, no fossilized shit or toys, only the heavy chain bolted to the window grating and lying on the studio floor as inert and immovable as Achilles’ spear. My parents never expected to have me; Gutboy was to have been their only child. I was supposed to be this dog. I admire Gutboy’s ferocity. Gutboy was a living dinosaur and my true ancestor. Betrayed and abandoned.
Gutboy’s daily walk with my mother took them by a fenced-in cement yard with a loading dock guarded by a rail-thin young dog with a bushy tail. The guard dog would push its head under the fence and whimper for attention when Gutboy walked by. Gutboy would look at its head and refrain from biting it. This was the extent of their mutual understanding, but it qualified the young dog as Gutboy’s only friend. It also convinced my mother of the dog’s intelligence and gentility. She struck up a human friendship with the owner of the warehouse. The man was trying to get rid of the skinny guard dog because it was too gentle and played with the crackheads who broke into the yard to steal tools from the company’s fleet of trucks.
“I like your nice dog,” said my mother.
“I like your bad dog,” said the man.
So my mother traded Gutboy even up for the Shepard, who was Astrovan, of course. My father objected mildly and then went along with the plan. He saw Gutboy three times after the trade. The first time he absentmindedly walked Astrovan by Gutboy’s new home. Gutboy threw himself against the gate in such a frenzy of happiness and anguish that my father did not come back for three weeks. On the second visit, Gutboy did not appear to know either one of them. He stayed put at the back of the yard and followed their progress idly out of the corner of his eyes.
My father made his third and final visit to Gutboy early in the morning about two weeks later. Gutboy was lying on his side in the middle of the loading dock and no amount of shouting would rouse him. My father returned one more time and learned that Gutboy was dead. He had been killed by an intruder who had thrown poisoned meat over the fence and then strangled him as he lay paralyzed on the ground.
My father told me that he felt bad for his indirect role in Gutboy’s murder, but actually he seemed more intrigued by the unlikely coincidence of having seen Gutboy’s body only hours, or even minutes, after his death. Astrovan was more my father’s speed anyway. He was far less trouble than Gutboy, although also far less of a personality.
A year later my mother brought home Beetlebug. Three years later she went to India, which is where I came in.