This story is not about my jailbird father-in-law. Or it’s not supposed to be. In any event, he’s good material, and I knew it the moment I heard about him: my then-girlfriend-now-wife Beth told me, in a hesitant, whispery voice, how her dad spent a year and a half in a North Carolina slammer, the same year and a half, she told me, that she spent in Canada, serving a proselytizing mission for the Mormon Church. At our wedding a year or so after that conversation, my new father-in-law looked rattled and uncomfortable in his tux. He came up to Beth at the reception that evening, smiled and nodded politely at me, then leaned down close to her and asked how much longer was this going to be, darlin’, how much longer ’cause he really needed a smoke. It was a Mormon wedding and a Mormon reception. If he happened to have his lighter on him it was the only one in the room.
“A little while longer, Daddy,” Beth said, smiling. “We’re about to cut the cake now, okay? You can smoke outside after that.”
The way she said it—all smiles, half-laughing, even—made you think she’d never feared her father, made you think she’d never clung to her mother, like an activist chained to a Redwood marked for felling, on nights when he came home shitfaced and stupid and angry.
I watched my new father-in-law straighten up tall again, watched his eyes tick around the room. He was a thin man, and darkly handsome, with a strangely disarming way about him, a certain aw-shucks quality you couldn’t help smiling at.
He looked down at Beth again. “All right, darlin’,” he said, then moved off toward the punch bowl where his brother Dave was standing.
Dave was the second youngest in a family of six boys, and by far the tamest from the stories I’d heard. Like my father-in-law Joe (the oldest child), Dave and his wife, who were up from North Carolina, looked uneasy in the presence of so many northern transplants, damn Yankees every one of us, wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Indeed, this was the problem with Northern Virginia. It was home to a transient, peripatetic race of people from every state in the Union (my family hailed from Massachusetts) and from plenty of places outside it too. As the post-WWII years saw Washington’s government overflow the Potomac into Maryland and Virginia, more and more outsiders got in on the action, and the D.C. suburbs grew too cosmopolitan, too liberal and uppity, too Northern entirely to be considered the South.
By way of contrast, Southern Virginia (where Beth grew up) was still a holdout for old darlin’ Dixie, especially in the parts left unscathed by tourism. People down there had accents and gospel, and their worship of Lee went well beyond book learning, just as their hatred of Sherman did.
So, in the eyes of more than a few, I suppose, my romance with Beth was against geography. (Picture the old Romeo and Juliet story made fresh by setting it in the Reconstruction South, doing the balcony scene atop some antebellum portico.) Indeed, the fragile rapprochement between old enemies was a theme throughout the whole of our courtship, and especially toward the end of it, as our respective families were involved: me calling Beth’s father up to ask for her hand, not knowing quite what to call him (Joseph? Joe? Mr. Radner?); me making the same call to Beth’s mother and not knowing quite what to call her either (Cathy? Ms. Cobb? Mrs. Radner?) since she’d been separated from her husband for several years but still bore his last name on official documents; me later offending my newly affianced as I recalled the conversations with her parents in a slow, stupid-sounding drawl—an offense I repaired that same night, by the way, using the unspoken diplomatic language. Then there was the problem of money (the family of the bride was/is in dire financial straights next to my family’s Ivy League affluence); the problem of taste (I fought Beth hard to get the cheap status conferral of Dr. as in “Ryan McIlvain, son of Dr. and Mrs. McIlvain…” off the announcements, and Beth fought me hard for a second, more traditional and more lavish reception in Southern Virginia); the problem of religion (two-thirds of Beth’s family stayed on the outside looking in as she and I married in a members-only Mormon temple); and, finally, her father’s problems with the law (the touch-and-go negotiations for permission to leave the state of North Carolina for the wedding, the first run-in with his de facto ex-wife since being released from the pen).
It was the same reaction when a friend of a friend died while I was in high school. She wrote in an email about a girl from her class who’d fallen out of her boyfriend’s jeep while they idled at a stoplight. A terrible fight, she said. Bitter words exchanged. The girl jerks her forearm free of his grip and, throwing open the passenger side door, stumbles imperiously out of the car, falls under the front right tire, and splat! That’s how I imagined it, anyway. The boyfriend’s foot must have slipped on the gas, or maybe he suddenly threw it into reverse, not knowing where she was, not looking, not thinking. In any event, my friend was understandably shaken up. A few days later when I emailed her the poem I’d written about the incident, she wrote back the same day with (I thought) some composure. Her main objection was the pancake metaphor. Very poor taste, she said. Very insensitive.
She may have been right, but that was beside the point. It was a gauche turn of phrase, I later saw, so I took it out just like she’d suggested.
That’s how the story’s told, tragicomic like that.
I’ve also heard about Joe’s worst arrest, seen the worst of his charges online. If you Google my father-in-law, the first thing you find is a summary of the Danville, Virginia Circuit Court’s sentencing for January 21, 2003:
Joseph Theodore Radner, Jr.: Convicted of Driving after beingDeclared an Habitual Offender, Eluding
Police, Possession of Cocaine,
Possession of Promethazine and
Possession of Alprozolam
Sentenced to a total of 12 years, 6 months in the penitentiary, suspended on the condition that he serve 21 months, pay a fine of $300.00, complete 12 months probation, and 5 years of good behavior.
A few weeks before that, my father-in-law was out riding his motorcycle at night. A cop pulled him over for speeding, I imagine, and right away Joe knew he was screwed. He was riding the motorcycle with a suspended license. He was also high on crack. The cop framed him in his high beams there on the side of the road, stepped out of his cruiser and started toward Joe: Joe making like he was going to cooperate, Joe calm, calm, then kicking into gear and screaming out of there; the cop running back to his cruiser to give chase and give chase and give chase with the flashing whining cruiser bearing down hard on Joe until his bike slipped out on a curve and he crashed to the ground and then stumbled off a ways on foot before crashing down again with all the weight of the cop behind him.
Joe spent that night in jail, aching.
Promethazine is generally prescribed for nausea; Alprazolam for anxiety, muscle spasms, insomnia.
For all the high talk of development and gentrification in the city, Yanceyville’s outlying areas seemed to have changed not at all, Alan told us. Turning onto the road where my father-in-law was born, and where he now lived in the same house with his widowed mother, Alan pointed out a sad-looking bar set back in a clearing of trees, the little parking lot empty except for a B.F.I. dumpster.
“My dad took a bullet in that parking lot,” Alan said. He let out a snort, then another, and then we all lost it, laughing unrestrained.
“He what?” I said.
“Some bar fight,” Alan managed through his laughter. “I guess Dad was hitting on some guy’s wife and the guy got wind of it, went home, and came back with his 12-gauge. Anyway, there was a one-sided shoot-out right there in the parking lot…”
By now I’d stopped laughing for all the furious, copious mental notes I was taking: Alan and Beth laugh it all off, laugh as if to prove they’ve come to terms with it—a coping mechanism so exercised they hardly know it’s there anymore…
But the story was pretty funny, in that same tragicomic, Old South sort of way, and I couldn’t help lapsing a few seconds later into a normal person again, laughing the way a normal person would laugh. The telling was mostly for my sake, anyway. Alan and Beth had been rehashing it for years, I imagined.
“…so the bullet lodged right in his neck,” Alan was saying. “Lucky for Dad, he had a metal plate there from his back surgery.”
He burst out laughing even louder, throwing his head back so far this time I worried he’d drive us all off the road.
“It’s a miracle the man is still alive,” Beth said.
“He’s immortal,” Alan said. “He just will not die.”
A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway, taking in the quaint little bungalow house. My father-in-law came out on the porch he’d built up from scratch to greet us with a smile as big as all outdoors. I thought of the metal plate that had saved his life, imagined it floating there in his upper spinal column like a guardian angel, and saw how that massive back surgery had been fortuitous at least in that regard, if not in others. It was that same back surgery which kept him drugged up for months and which led to yet another addiction (this time to prescription painkillers), which eventually led to the separation from his wife in 1999, only a few years after he’d finally made an honest woman out of her.
I got out of the car yawning mightily and stretching. Beth was already halfway to the house, where her father met her with a giant hug.
“Hiya, darlin’,” I heard him say.
These days, then, as my father-in-law goes back to prison—some leftover penance from a D.U.I., we’re told—I start to wonder, as I reach instinctively for my pen, if the artist as amoralist is really the goal. You read Kafka on axes that break up the icy heart, yet there he is writing with brutal stinging terrible honesty about his father, so thinly veiled in his fiction. Hardly the stuff that engages the sympathies—at least not Kafka’s old man’s, anyway. You hear the march of the post-modernist literati, away from didacticism, sentimentalism, moralism, yet for many I imagine it’s a kind of forced march. They’d just as soon write nice if they thought the journals would publish it. They’d just as soon leave their loved ones off the bloody cross, but it’s always a matter of writing what you know, and holding nothing back, and telling it real, no matter the cost. Writers were never long for polite society anyway. Or so the argument goes.
Still. I can’t help but wonder if these writers aren’t like me at times: mere vultures making pretense at art, mere voyeurs hiding behind a ream of thick-stock paper, taking their neuroses out on the world, screaming, deprecating, embarrassing, hurting. I wonder if there isn’t a special place in hell reserved for the lockstep hosts of the Honesty School.
Take the local memoirist I covered while working as an arts reporter. Reading her latest book in preparation for my interview, I came across the following passage:
I started into marriage with good intentions. I expected it would come naturally, that I would fall quickly into contentment, but I never did…. My friends knew the answer to my uneasiness. “Have a baby,” they said; instead I had an affair.¹
What admirable honesty, I thought to myself, when maybe what I should have been thinking was, Tell it to your marriage counselor. In the paragraphs and pages that followed, the memoirist left her husband, remarried, and divorced again, giving a faithful play-by-play all throughout. She also exhumed a good many of her father’s skeletons, sins for which he deserved to be punished, if he hadn’t already been. At the interview a few days later, the memoirist told me how her father hadn’t spoken a word to her since he’d read the advance copy of the memoir. I looked appropriately stricken at the news, but of course that comes with the territory, I said. Exactly, she said, and sprung to her feet. She ran to the kitchen and pulled down a slip of paper she’d pinned to the fridge. It was a quote from some sage or other—a name I’d never heard of—about how, when a writer is born into a family, that family is finished. I nodded and smiled to acknowledge what she’d showed me. I may have even said something like, “Oh, that’s gooood,” or something about the nobility of telling it like it is, no matter what. No matter if you have to make a few casualties along the way, those ashen remains on the altar of your art.
It’s that last line that Mom takes particular issue with.
But it’s an essay about Dad, I explain to her over the phone, not about you. It’s about the death of a role model and the birth of a friend, Dad’s newfound honesty now that I’m grown, now that I’m married off and responsible and all, the worst mischief in me long dead on the vine.
Mom tells me she wants to be proud of what I do, what I write. How could she show an essay like that to her friends, her family? Hasn’t she always been respectful of my wishes? Hasn’t she always been kind?
I wonder if my father-in-law would mount similar arguments against this essay. Maybe he wouldn’t, as he doesn’t have near the reputation to protect. And maybe he would, having turned a corner in his life by most accounts, having vowed to clean up his act and stay out of jail, he’s much too old for such nonsense anyway. I imagine the conversation we might have. “Why would you wanna write about me?” he’d ask. And I’d answer something about writing as a process of discovery, catharsis; I’d tell him about the naturalist’s job to let the unerring eye lead him inexorably on toward truth; I’d probably tell him about Kafka and the axes that break up icy hearts; and when he looked at me like the uppity Yankee I am, his eyes angry perhaps, hurt perhaps, I imagine I’d let go of normative arguments altogether and flat-out lie to him, like I lie to my mother on the phone.
“You’re overreacting,” I say, “don’t worry. Nobody reads the journals I’m submitting to anyway.”
“You’re sending it off to a journal?” Mom says. “Oh no you’re not. Not like that you’re not.”
“Relax,” I say. “Nobody cares.”
“That’s private,” she says. “It’s mine, not yours.”
“Relax,” I say.
“Please take it out, son.”