Soliloquy 38

 ~ Louis - Pronounced Louie And Not Lewis ~

There is no one story, no single pattern of thoughts, that I can organize into a seamless composition. It is just an overall memory of how good he made me feel for most of my life. There was no safer place than in the crush of my father's strong arms. His largeness encompassed me and although I could not quite catch my breath, yet it made me feel treasured and protected. It was my father's dependable love and confidence, that there was always a solution, which gave me security in a dicey world.

My parents arrived to this community of cookie-cutter houses in 1961. That year my mother threw a large party to celebrate my father's fiftieth birthday. It is forty years later and the house has unwittingly become mine. And this year I will be fifty.

There was a time when my father was working in Delaware, yet my mother, my older sister, and I remained in the Bronx apartment. My mother did not want to take my older sister out of school until she was sure Louis had steady work. I have no memory of his absence, but when questioned, my mother told me that for about a year he was only coming home on the weekends.  There was one occasion when we went down to visit him. This would explain one of my earliest memories of a night when we were driving home from Delaware when I was four. My sister and I were sitting in the back seat of the Studebaker. It came to me that night that one day my father would die. Then I realized that one day I would also die. I asked my father what happens when we die, where do we go? Lou offered an honest answer, saying he didn't know. The idea that one day I wouldn't have my father was unpleasant and I began crying. The next realization, that I would also eventually die, proved unbearable. I cried harder still and my mother was angry with my father for upsetting me. She told him he should have made something up. That was my first awareness and bout with mortality, a defining moment in my life.

For most of my life, I had a great love and profound respect for my father. It dissolved when I was thirty-five, when he alienated his family and stood on the verge of losing his house. My mother moved out, after more than forty years of marriage, and since I was already paying the mortgage, I moved in with my wife and stepchildren. I am still unable to disregard the horror and misery that shaped the last dozen years of my father's existence, when he became increasingly obstreperous, belligerent, and dangerous.

Unwilling to let anyone intervene in his behalf, he spent all of his savings and began using my credit cards to make purchases. He slept with a loaded gun. He made lewd proposals to every woman he met, even the adolescent friends of our daughter. We had to hide the car keys from him. All the former good in my father had been choked to death by repeated strokes. More and more he became ruled by his impulses for immediate satisfaction. I am still unable to erase the more recent bad memories and reach back to better days.

He died five years ago today. The evening of the 28th January 1996, it was a Sunday night and I was walking Boris the dog. A car came up the street and slowed as it approached. It was my car. My wife was looking for me to tell me that Lou had died, I had guessed. She lowered the window and said what I had already anticipated.

Louis Bentzman, electrical/mechanical engineer, died at the Community Medical Center in Toms River, New Jersey, eighty-four years away from where he began life in Harlem - upper Manhattan. There as a child my father built one of the first radios, and as a young man he built the first television in the community, when the only program being aired were the fights on Sundays. Born on the eleventh day of the eleventh month in the eleventh year of the last century - and family members have always claimed at the eleventh hour - my father would mark the first airplane to cross the Atlantic and the first spaceship to land on the moon. When I asked him if he was astonished to witness such accomplishments in his lifetime, he said no, for he had expected no less.

As a young man my father was a rogue, a hustler of pool, an embezzler when he worked as a bank clerk, a mechanic who assisted Zora Arkus-Duntov in his Manhattan garage (the man who later went on to design the Chevrolet Corvette). He worked in the factories of manufacturing, supporting his mother and siblings after the early death of his father.

My father never graduated college, although he was certified by the State of New York as to his abilities. He had left Columbia University when he found it more profitable to teach engineering students how to pass their classes, classes he had never bothered completing himself. Throughout his career he would be put in charge of college graduates because they lacked his hands-on experience. He knew why things that worked on paper would not work as well on the shop floor. He used to laugh about the other men he made rich with his designs, but my father, who taught me how to haggle with salesmen, never had a good business sense. To this date, whenever I visit a mall, I see the soft pretzel machines my father invented and from which he derived no royalties.

In his dotage, he refused to go into a retirement community, where he would have to surrender control of his money. Instead he took an apartment where he disturbed, if not outright terrorized, the other residents by inviting streetwalkers and thieves to stay with him. They robbed him of every valuable possession and he invited them to return. He squandered his money on junk purchased from the Home Shopping Network. He would spend his social security check in the first week of the month, leaving himself weeks without money for food.

We tried to wrestle control of his money away from him. Late in his life I would hear a psychologist suggest my father had "unilateral bipolar disorder" - is this not an oxymoron? My father had been manic. A judge declared that my father wasn't incompetent, merely irresponsible. He had control of his money until it was gone and in his last days was forced to take residence in a "convalescent" center. Depression caught up to him there, many months of regretful but unavoidable abandonment when I was his only visitor. His creditors sought me out, trying to get me to pay his debts.

I am grateful that Louis died in a private room at a hospital, on fresh sheets and under good lighting. Good lighting was always important to Louis. I am glad he died in a clean space and did not die at that convalescent center, a holding tank for the hopelessly waiting, where they are kept and managed until appropriately suited for the grave. It was a dark and dingy room he shared at the convalescent center with three other men. One of whom used to piss in the corners of their room. Perhaps it would have made no difference to Lou, but I did not want him to die in that sad place with its stale air fouled by harsh detergents, bodily eliminations, and exfoliated flesh. He died quietly, in plain sight of the nurse's station, giving no outward indication of a change in his status until the next scheduled check of the hospital's staff.

It is better to remember him when I, as a child, emerged from nightmares to find him sitting on the edge of my bed and reassuring me. I was to include him in my bad dreams and he would defend me against monsters. He would swallow me in one of his bear-like embraces. Those were times when my invincible father was yet immortal.

Bruce Bentzman

This is the thirty-eighth in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
For further reading, Mr Bentzman's book "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman" is available from Amazon.