Monday, April 4, 2016

Shades of My Father

“I see absolutely no reason to get down to work, today, even if it is Monday, and even if I did absolutely nothing all weekend….”

“Nonsense,” Lady snorted, “I’m painting houses, Naïa is in school, so you should be writing.”

“Why me?” I asked. “Look at my father! Just see how he was spending some Monday morning in ‘date unknown.’”

“Date unknown?”

“Date unknown, since when my father retired in 1974, he had to clean out the basement, partly to keep busy, and partly because they were going to move. So we had this massive garage sale, and then it came time to do something with the thousands of pictures that he had taken over the years….”

“He was a photographer? I though he was a writer.”

“Well, he was mostly a writer, but in his quirky way, he branched into oddities. I mean, who would have thought he would turn into an excellent Chinese cook? So he had all these Leicas—very expensive at time, and still are—and he kept them hidden from my mother. And there we all were, eating 29 cent tuna fish, and he was spending hundreds on cameras!”

“Then what happened?”

“Well, that went on for years, under the pretense that he had only one Leica, which really was a working tool. And that worked perfectly well, since at that time all cameras were black. So Franny, my mom, really had no way of knowing how many cameras her husband had. And by the time she found out, the kids had grown, and they didn’t need to eat tuna fish anymore….”

“Anyway, Jack would take the camera along with him as he went to do his stories, which saved the paper a bundle of money. So over the weekend, I began wondering whether my father had gotten up to see Mary Ann van Hoof, also known as the Blessed Mother. You remember—the lady who palled around with the Blessed Virgin Mary. BM and BVM respectively, since I’m lazy today.”

“Ah yes, 100,000 people in some weird little town in Wisconsin.”

“Necedah. And you’re seriously right about it being weird; it’s in a totally terrible part of Wisconsin. Actually, the place is so bad that the Indian’s named one of the towns up there Wonewoc, which means ‘evil / bad.’”


“Yup—a terrible place. So bad the Mafia used to get rid of their corpses up there. Sand country, dirt poor, butt-ugly. Nothing good about it….”

“Well, until the BVM dropped by….”

“Anyway, the place has a long history of weirdoes, one of whom was Elizabeth Bieber, who was Mary Ann’s mother. So Elizabeth was a spiritualist, who gave séances in Kenosha, and then drifted over to Wonewoc to do the same in the Spiritist Camp.”

“You got spiritualists in Wisconsin?”

“Every crazy seems to spend some time in Wisconsin,” I told her. “And yes, there’s been a spiritualist camp up in Wonewoc ever since 1887, or something. You know, it was big in the late 19th century. Even Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd were having séances in the White House….”


“Anyway, the point is that Jack thrived on oddballs. He used to worry, occasionally, that everybody would get up in Southern Wisconsin and just go to work, which makes economists happy, but not newspaper guys. So if you were building a replica of Noah’s arc in your basement, according to the exact specifications of the Old Testament—well, my father was your best friend.”

“So this is leading up to….”

“Here,” I showed her.

“Good Lord,” said Lady. “And what are they doing?”

“Well, according to the Hysterical Society—which is actually pretty apt, in this case—they were ‘testing’ a medium, these two ladies up in Wonewoc.”

“Thank god for that,” said Lady. “Because otherwise, it would seem to be a bondage session gone west…. Oh, and the Hysterical Society?”

“That’s where all my father’s pictures ended up. He would take photos, you see, and then write something on the back of them, and then put them in a cardboard box down in the basement. And eventually, of course, it would turn out to be a lot of boxes, and a lot of negatives, and a lot of newspaper clippings—in short, a huge mess. Which made my mother unhappy and made the Wisconsin State Historical Society really happy. Archivists love this sort of stuff, which is why I can tell you that the image is number 60311, and the dimensions are 4x5 inches in the original. But if, by the way, you want to buy a 24x 36 inch print, it cost you 77 bucks….”

“What! They’re selling your father’s pictures!”

“They certainly are,” I told her. “And do you think anyone in the family is seeing a nickel of that money? Hah—they’re all probably skiing in Gstaad, or buying Greek islands! And here I am, back to the tuna fish, lately….”

“Yes, lying flat on your back does tend to limit—generally speaking—career opportunities.”

“So the point is that if Jack could spend some morning breezing up to Wonewoc to check in with the spiritualists, well, what about me? I definitely get a day at the beach at least once a year…”

“Nonsense—your father was on duty.”

“My father had a surprisingly lax sense of duty,” I told her. “Which tended to drive the bosses crazy. I mean, he would drift into the office, sit down and type non-stop, then get up, and drift away. He had been writing, you see, in his head, during his nap after breakfast….”

“The guy took a nap after breakfast?”

“Not only can I still see him, I can hear him. A prodigious snorer. Anyway, then he would get up, and drive slowly downtown. And as he kept writing—internally—the driving got slower and slower. People either loved him or hated him, though he did provide the perfect excuse for office tardiness. ‘I was behind John Newhouse,’ you’d tell your boss, and all he could do was nod….”

“Well, he couldn’t have been all that lax, since he took all those pictures, and wrote all those stories….”

“The problem was that it looked like he wasn’t doing anything,” I told her. “I mean, he’d be drinking coffee or looking out the window or just generally goofing off, and nobody knew that he was writing. And that tends to annoy the supervisorial mind….”

“I can understand,” said Lady. “And what do you think the story is behind the picture? Did the medium pass the test? And what did they intend to do—or what had they done?—with that rope?”

“No idea,” I told her. “But there is something troublesome about Jack. Most people, when they die, just stop. No more stories, nothing more to learn. But with my father, he keeps cropping up, in places. So what he was doing, on that date unknown, in Wonewoc, Wisconsin, we’ll probably never know. You know, we really should have taken him a bit more seriously—like the Hysterical Society—and sat him down with a tape recorder and gotten him to tell us about all these pictures. As it is, they just breeze in, occasionally, on the Internet.”

But Lady has drifted off somewhere, since houses need to be painted or children sent to school, and then—having a Frenchman for a husband—she has to kiss Nico. I ponder it: the stories were supposed to have ended, when my parents died. And that seemed fine, and then I fell, and now?

Have the stories begun again?