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I am forever grateful my parents never gave me a nickname, flattering or cruel, term of endearment or implement of ridicule, to outgrow or be saddled with forever. This is because I never saw them. I spent my childhood confined to a handful of austere rooms that had in place of windows arrays of blinking incandescent lights, which was the sole method of communication between my parents and me. Meals, discipline, books, toys and replacement light bulbs were administered by a white-haired Nepalese man whom I knew only as the Bitter One. In other words, I was a happy child.
Elsewhere in the house, my parents, strangers to me except for the sporadic stream of relay pulses and blinking lights, were alive and enjoying what I assumed was a normal middle-class suburban existence. I didn’t realize until long after their death that their days were consumed with maintaining and improving the network of wires, switches, bulbs, relays and the enormous computer, which previously saw service at a radar station along the Distant Early Warning Line and obtained by my parents through a government auction, that controlled the system and provided data to my parents regarding the progress of my upbringing.
I knew nothing of the usual holidays. The only break from my routine of lessons, calisthenics, meals, study and sleep was the weeklong festival of lights called Dawali in India and Tihar in The Bitter One’s native Nepal. My spartan rooms of eggshell walls and pale brown floors would for 5 nights be alive with the irregular flashes and sputters of 52 votive candles.
The Bitter One took special pride in his preparations for the week. His normally grim disposition would take on an additional severe solemnity. He presented nightly shadow puppet plays that featured rigorous morality and brutal retribution.
The Bitter One presented five shadow plays. Over the years, he continued to craft and refine the puppets and storylines of the plays. By the time I reached adolescence, both plot and presentation had been stylized to the point of bearing only the faintest resemblance to their medieval Asian origins.
Character and storyline gave way to extended, abstracted portrayals of the Hell awaiting disobedient boys. Over the years, “The Fable of the Thousand-Armed Beheader of Children” evolved from the original, concise folktale into an extended panic of cries and screams accompanying the spastic pulsing blue shadows on an orange screen.
The Tihar shadow plays shared one moment of calm. Sita, also known as Janaki, would appear. The frenetic shaking and wailing were replaced by slow, graceful movements and the long, sonorous, high-pitched tone of a single brass bell. The gestures of gentle elegance in her hands, her long legs, heavy eyelids and slightly parted lips made Sita at once regal and alluring. A fake gemstone placed in the cutout of Sita’s eye twinkled and changed color and intensity as her head turned. The bell rang, inspiring a blush from me.
Sita’s was the one puppet The Bitter One never changed.
The dinners he prepared during the week of Tihar were a metaphor for his 25 years of wanderlust and the circuitous route he took from Katmandu to Middle America.
Day one – curried mutton and milked tea
Day two – lamb vindaloo, basmati rice, and sweets made of pistachios and chick pea flour, mango lassi
Day three – mu shu pork, hot and sour soup, lychee fruit custard, oolong tea
Day four – shrimp tempura, conch, green tea, sake, mochi cakes, pocky
Day five – roasted venison in a maple syrup and mustard glaze, new potatoes, dandelion greens in a raspberry vinaigrette.
The day after Tihar ended, The Bitter One was unusually withdrawn. He packed away the votive holders, carefully scraped the melted wax off the shelves and floor and prepared one more ceremonial dinner.
This sixth dinner symbolized his years as a waiter on a cruise ship. Nearly every item on the menu was prepared table-side: Ceasar Salad, Steak Diane, Chateaubriand. Dessert: Crepes Suzette, Baked Alaska, Bananas Foster.
These dinners were excruciatingly formal. He insisted on proper attire. New china and silverware accompanied each course. He regularly refilled my water glass and scraped the crumbs off the table. It infuriated me.
As asinine and absurd as these cruise ship dinners were, they were delicious. The Bitter One was an extraordinary chef. All his years working in the finest kitchens of Bombay, Hong Kong and Tokyo gave him a strong foundation in the culinary arts.
While cooking for loggers in Canada he found his muse. As his French improved he poured himself into the lessons of Auguste Escoffier (from stolen cookbooks boosted from the head chef at Gaddi’s, Hong Kong) with tireless vigor. His mastery of sauces was known throughout British Columbia. Within two years, 23 loggers retired early, suffering from gout.
There were a few shelves of books available to me. The bulk of them were volumes from different encyclopedias dating from 1860 to 1936. My view of the outside world was misshapen by these volumes. I dreamed of traveling to Siam, Ceylon, Rhodesia, Italian Somaliland, Demerara, Abyssinia, and Danish America. For several months I was obsessed with the Cathedral of San Giovanni Battista in Ragusa, convinced it was the most splendid in the world, thanks to some color engravings. (Entries on the Sistine Chapel and Notre Dame were damaged or missing.)
One day, I would hunt Caspian tigers and quaggas.
My ten-year-old mind fixed on the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was central to my imaginary globetrotting and would be my second home as I darted around the Mediterranean and Adriatic. The more I thought about it, the more worried I got. How would I greet the Emperor?
“It’s not the Emperor you should worry about,” The Bitter One explained. “The Empress, however, is another matter entirely. You never turn your back to her. When withdrawing from the room, you bow and walk backwards.”
“Out of respect?” I asked.
“Yes, indeed. You take every opportunity to drink in her majesty, her beauty.”
The Empress became as real a person as anything could be in my mind. She was breathtakingly beautiful, a living embodiment of grace. Warm, convivial, kind. What’s more, she has a young daughter, a princess. Every bit as beautiful as the Empress, but young, shy and quiet. All bow before her as she yearns to stand eye to eye with them.
I knew it was impossible for anything like love between someone so high and a base fool like me, but perhaps there would be a knowing glance between us. I would tell her: I understand that I don’t understand.
Between dreams of the Empress's daughter, my Austrian princess–sweet, vulnerable, yet utterly inaccessible–my everyday life sunk into the doldrums. The few things that used to fill me with dread or joy were now simply ordeals. They were tasks to be completed with the same blank efficiency that I applied to the stacks of fan-fold pin-feed paper that my lessons were printed on.
Green and white rows; blue and orange shadows. I took it all in without any differentiation. Eating, reading, washing, playing cards, decoding the blinking lights and chattering relays. It was all the same.
For my 14th birthday, The Bitter One taped a poster for the film Kramer vs. Kramer on the wall and used it as a guide to cut my hair. He did his best to make me look like Dustin Hoffman, (parted in the middle, feathered bangs) but my hair just wasn’t long enough.
“You’re a man now,” he said.
Later that evening, he taught me how to shave and how to open a bottle of wine. He gave me my first beer, and we played gin rummy all night. The following morning I drank black coffee for the first time.
YOU ARE NEEDED. YOU HAVE A DUTY TO FULFILL. WE ARE SENDING YOU OUT INTO THE WORLD EARLIER THAN WE HAVE PLANNED, BUT WE KNOW WE ARE DOING THE RIGHT THING.
WE DID OUR VERY BEST TO PREPARE YOU FOR WHAT AWAITS YOU. THERE WILL BE MUCH YOU DON’T IMMEDIATELY UNDERSTAND; FOR THAT YOU CAN BLAME US ENTIRELY. THERE WILL BE MUCH YOU WILL UNDERSTAND BETTER THAN ANYBODY ELSE IN THE WORLD; FOR THAT YOU CAN ALSO BLAME US.
The relays clanked their final clank, and the bulbs faded. I had two packed bags at my feet.
I was the youngest air traffic controller in the world. A lifetime spent deciphering the blinking lights of my parents had given me a gift for pattern recognition and non-linear reasoning.
It was 1981, and the PATCO strike had left the control towers of the nation’s airports severely understaffed. My youth was overlooked, and my training was fast-tracked. At 15 years old, I was a full-fledged professional in my field.
The Bitter One visited to check up on me. His visits became less frequent, and then ceased. I worked hard to adjust to my new situation. I was socially inept.
During the week of my 16th birthday, I received a letter on green and white pinfeed fanfold paper that was presumably from my parents:
ACCORDING TO OUR FORECASTS, YOUR WEIGHT SHOULD BE APPROXIMATELY 160 POUNDS. YOU NEW SURROUNDINGS MAY HAVE EXPOSED YOU TO UNFARMILIAR AND UNHEALTHY FOODS. WE URGE YOU TO EXERCISE RESTRAINT AND MODERATION.
GET PLENTY OF ROUGHAGE. ATTACHED ARE SEVERAL COUPONS FOR WHOLEGRAIN CEREALS AND A LIST OF BEST PLACES TO BUY CELERY WITHIN A 3 MILE RADIUS OF YOUR ADDRESS.
CAREFULLY CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS.
RESIST ANY DESIRE TO ALTER YOUR STATE OF CONCIOUSNESS.
I had trouble fitting in at work. The novelty of a teenaged air traffic controller was a bit much for my co-workers, most of whom were ex-military men. There were a thousand ways in which I wasn’t like them.
Because of my odd manner of speaking (I had inherited The Bitter One’s accent and mannerisms) I got the nickname “Yul”. I didn’t understand why until I saw
The King and I
After a few years of talking to pilots, I picked up the rural Midwestern drawl that is the
of commercial aviation. My co-workers slowly warmed to me.
Contrary to what I assumed would be my parents’ wishes, I tried smoking. It looked like an easy way to meet people and talk to them. “Can I bum a smoke?” “Sure, need a light?” “Thanks.” And so on.
The results were disastrous. I coughed and gagged nearly to the point of vomiting. Unfortunately, I had so committed myself to the idea of smoking that I bought an entire carton of cigarettes. Rather than throw them away, I brought them to work to give to whomever wanted them. “You smoke, Yul?”
“No. My father’s trying to quit.”
“Yul, you’re allright.”
Dear Mr. J_______,
I am writing to deliver to you the grim, awful news that both your parents have passed away. I have been given the unfortunate task of executor of their will and need to meet with you, their sole surviving heir, as soon as possible to settle their final affairs.
As a longtime friend and neighbor of your parents, I was stunned to learn that they had a son. Jeez, you think you know somebody, and then…
Anyway, I hope this note finds you otherwise well, and I extend my deepest sympathies to you.
Beverly L. S_______
I rang Ms. S_______’s doorbell.
“Hello? Oh, you must be … oh, my, yes. No mistake. Do you still have keys for your house?”
“My house? Oh, no. No, I don’t.”
“Well, I only have the back door key, but that should be fine. What’s wrong? If you’d someone to go in there with you I can ask Hank to… Ha-ank!”
“No, I’ll be fine. I just don’t remember which house…”
“I was very young when I was institutionalized.” (I had earlier resolved to stop lying about my parents and my upbringing. I wasn’t having much luck.)
“Your father went to pieces after your mother died.” Beverly explained. “I don’t think it was more than two days, and he was dead, too.”
“It was the strangest thing. It’s like they saw it coming. One day, all of the sudden, the color left their faces. They were acting real queer and grim. They were saying ‘You can have the dining room set. We won’t be needing it much longer’ and I was like, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I mean, I don’t want the damned dining room set. I want you to go see a doctor!”
Cleaning out my parents’ house was part archeology, part disaster recovery. Underneath stacks of fanfold paper, reels of computer tape, newspapers, and unopened mail was a typical mid-century living room, perfectly preserved and unchanged since approximately the time I was born. (The oldest newspapers confirmed my suspicions.)
The tens of thousands of pages of printouts were impossible to read. Every so often I would catch a glimpse of my name. I’d sit down and start reading but get frustrated.
I finally found pictures of them. His nose, her chin, his shoulders, her eyes, his ears, her lips: me, perfectly divided.
What was supposed to be a bedroom was consumed by an enormous hulk of early Cold War digital computational machinery. The room still smelled like a space heater. There was a thick layer of baked-on dust from decades of intense heat. Along each wall were cartons of spare vacuum tubes.
Inside the daisy-wheel printer, there was one final printout:
ACCORDING TO THE BEST STATISTICAL MODELS AVAILABLE TODAY, I AM NOT LONG FOR THIS WORLD: WIDOWER, HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE, INCONSOLABLE WITH DESPAIR. ELSEWHERE IN THIS DOCUMENT YOU WILL FIND SUFFICIENT DATA TO SUPPORT MY ASSUMPTIONS. I ACCEPT MY DISSOLUTION. GOODBYE.
When I found their photo albums I realized the full extent of my parents devotion to statistics and forecasting. Vacations destinations were chosen based on the chances of disaster, illness or discomfort. A trip to Hawaii was rescheduled twice because they weren’t sure whether they were allergic to poi or not. Finally, with a doctor’s reassurance that neither of them is allergic to poi (shouldn’t have coconut, though), they went.
Also in the album were maps of the flight path, weather reports, newspaper articles about various hijackings associated with the Middle East, and a list of every doctor in Maui.
My parents went to great lengths to maintain a façade of normality, a talent I inherited. They never told the truth about me to anyone, and I’ve told nothing but lies about them.
Their deception was complete. I never found the rooms that I was raised in; perhaps they were remodeled after I left? Perhaps that was a different house? Perhaps these aren’t my parents?
Nor could I find anything about their professional lives. My most absurd assumptions became more and more plausible: FBI? CIA? KGB? Was I some sinister weapon programmed from childhood to perform some unspeakably evil act?
I was overwhelmed by dread and fear. Me, a sleeper, a secret weapon awaiting orders, some part of my mind partitioned off by conditioning since childhood. A sign, a phone call, a key phrase causing me to act to the will of another. After a life guided by invisible hands, such suspicions are not so easily shaken.
I was, after all, an air traffic controller. With deliberate misdirection I could unleash an unholy bloodbath in the skies above my home city. I immediately phone my boss and quit my job. I gave no explanation other than “circumstances beyond my control”.
I scanned over every floor and wall in my parent’s house with a metal detector. Any beeping that wasn’t obviously a junction box or conduit was followed by smashing, prying and cutting. After three days of dust, rusty nails, and splinters, I had nothing to show for my efforts: no secret room, no hidden vault, no stash of documents.
Perhaps this was the awful deed my parents had programmed me for? It was time to clean up. Over the next three months I rebuilt their house and moved in. The old computer was discretely hauled away and sold for scrap.
There was a photo album that must have been the Bitter One’s. The first two pages were pictures of (I assumed) his family (vignette, sepia-toned), of Chinese chefs, loggers, waiters on a ship. The next 68 pages were stuffed with images of one woman, monochrome prints, from about 1964 (judging by her clothes). Dark, flowing hair. Deep eyes. Large breasts. Long, slender arms. Elegant fingers. I instantly recognized her profile.
In my stupor, I knocked over a box. A brass bell fell out of the box to the ground and rang. Sita. Janaki.
The rest of the album was blank.
Later that year I met my Austrian Princess. Corrine (shy, beautiful and impossibly smart) worked for Lufthansa. Despite all the mental rehearsals of my adolescent years, I stammered, stuttered and, in general, was a fool. In her regal wisdom, learned from years of dealing with asshole passengers, she pretended not to notice.
One date turned to two, and then another, and then a weekend at her sister’s lakeside cottage, to a week in Salzburg with her parents. (They asked about mine. I lied my usual lies.) My humdrum cyclical life was shattered with consideration for another. I was never happier.
When I agreed to move in with her, I realized I had to come clean and tell the truth to Corrine. My lies about my happy childhood, my baseball-loving blue-collar father, my kind and loving mother, my school chums.
Each night for 30 days, I tried to explain to Corrine everything I could remember. Some days she cried, other days she would leave in dismay and not come back until the morning. Most of the time, though, she was curious.
“Nothing but blinking lights? That’s all you ever saw?”
“That, and The Bitter One. Oh, and a few books.”
The Tip Jar