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Vol. 3, No. 3

Notes to My Biographer
by Adam Haslett

Two things to get straight from the beginning: I hate doctors and have never joined a support group in my life. At seventy-three, I'm not about to change. The mental-health establishment can go screw itself on a barren hilltop in the rain before I touch their snake oil or listen to the visionless chatter of men half my age. I have shot Germans in the fields of Normandy, filed twenty-six patents, married three women, survived them all, and am currently the subject of an investigation by the IRS, which has about as much chance of collecting from me as Shylock did of getting his pound of flesh. Bureaucracies have trouble thinking clearly. I, on the other hand, am perfectly lucid.
      Note, for instance, the way I obtained the Saab I am presently driving into the Los Angeles basin: a niece in Scottsdale lent it to me. Do you think she'll ever see it again? Unlikely. Of course, when I borrowed it from her I had every intention of returning it, and in a few days or weeks I may feel that way again, but for now forget her and her husband and three children who looked at me over the kitchen table like I was a museum piece sent to bore them. I could run circles around those kids. They're spoon-fed Ritalin and private schools and have eyes that say, Give me things I don't have. I wanted to read them a book on the history of the world, its immigrations, plagues, and wars, but the shelves of their outsized condominium were full of ceramics and biographies of the stars. The whole thing depressed the hell out of me and I'm glad to be gone.
      A week ago I left Baltimore with the idea of seeing my son Graham. I've been thinking about him a lot recently, days we spent together in the barn at the old house, how with him as my audience ideas came quickly, and I don't know when I'll get to see him again. I thought I might as well catch up with some of the other relatives along the way. I planned to start at my daughter Linda's in Atlanta, but when I arrived it turned out she'd moved. I called Graham, and when he got over the shock of hearing my voice, he said Linda didn't want to see me. By the time my younger brother Ernie refused to do anything more than have lunch with me after I had taken a bus all the way to Houston, I began to get the idea that this episodic reunion thing might be more trouble than it was worth. Scottsdale did nothing to alter my opinion. These people seem to think they'll have another chance, that I'll be coming around again. The fact is I've completed my will, made bequests of my patent rights, and am now just composing a few notes to my biographer, who, in a few decades, when the true influence of my work becomes apparent, may need them to clarify certain issues.

  • Franklin Caldwell Singer, b. 1924, Baltimore, Maryland.
  • Child of a German machinist and a banker's daughter.
  • My psych discharge following "desertion" in Paris was trumped up by an army intern resentful of my superior knowledge of the diagnostic manual. The nude-dancing incident at the Louvre in a room full of Rubenses had occurred weeks earlier and was of a piece with other celebrations at the time.
  • B.A., Ph.D., Engineering, The Johns Hopkins University.
  • 1952. First and last electroshock treatment, for which I will never, never, never forgive my parents.
  • Researcher, Eastman Kodak Laboratories. As with so many institutions in this country, talent was resented. I was fired as soon as I began to point out flaws in the management structure. Two years later I filed a patent on a shutter mechanism that Kodak eventually broke down and purchased (then?Vice President for Product Development Arch Vendellini was having an affair with his daughter's best friend, contrary to what he will tell you. Notice the way his left shoulder twitches when he is lying).
  • All subsequent diagnoses—and let me tell you, there have been a number—are the result of two forces, both in their way pernicious. 1) The attempt by the psychiatric establishment over the last century to redefine eccentricity as illness, and 2) the desire of members of my various families to render me docile and if possible immobile.
  • The electric-bread-slicer concept was stolen from me by a man in a diner in Chevy Chase dressed as a reindeer whom I could not possibly have known was an employee of Westinghouse.
  • That I have no memories of the years 1988?90 and believed until very recently that Ed Meese was still the attorney general is not owing to my purported paranoid blackout but, on the contrary, the fact that my third wife took it upon herself to lace my coffee with tranquilizers. Believe nothing you hear about the divorce settlement.

When I ring the buzzer at Graham's place in Venice, a Jew in his late twenties with some fancy-looking musculature answers the door. He appears nervous and says, "We weren't expecting you till tomorrow," and I ask him who they are and he says, "Me and Graham," adding hurriedly, "We're friends, you know, only friends. I don't live here, I'm just over to use the computer."
      All I can think is I hope this guy isn't out here trying to get acting jobs, because it's obvious to me right away that my son is gay and is screwing this character with the expensive-looking glasses. There was a lot of that in the military and I learned early on that it comes in all shapes and sizes, not just the fairy types everyone expects. Nonetheless, I am briefly shocked by the idea that my twenty-nine-year-old boy has never seen fit to share with me the fact that he is a fruitcake—no malice intended—and I resolve right away to talk to him about it when I see him. Marlon Brando overcomes his stupor and lifting my suitcase from the car he leads me through the back garden past a lemon tree in bloom to a one-room cottage with a sink and plenty of light to which I take an instant liking.
      "This will do nicely," I say, and then I ask him, "How long have you been sleeping with my son?" It's obvious he thinks I'm some brand of geriatric homophobe getting ready to come on in a religiously heavy manner, and seeing that deer-caught-in-the-headlights look in his eye I take pity and disabuse him. I've seen women run down by tanks. I'm not about to get worked up about the prospect of fewer grandchildren. When I start explaining to him that social prejudice of all stripes runs counter to my Enlightenment ideals—ideals tainted by centuries of partial application—it becomes clear to me that Graham has given him the family line. His face grows patient and his smile begins to leak the sympathy of the ignorant: poor old guy suffering from mental troubles his whole life, up one month, down the next, spewing grandiose notions that slip like sand through his fingers to which I always say, you just look up Frank Singer at the U.S. Patent Office. In any case, this turkey probably thinks the Enlightenment is a marketing scheme for General Electric; I spare him the seminar I could easily conduct and say, "Look, if the two of you share a bed, it's fine with me."
      "That drive must have worn you out," he says hopefully. "Do you want to lie down for a bit?"
      I tell him I could hook a chain to my niece's Saab and drag it through a marathon. This leaves him nonplussed. We walk back across the yard together into the kitchen of the bungalow. I ask him for pen, paper, and calculator and begin sketching an idea that came to me just a moment ago—I can feel the presence of Graham already—for a bicycle capable of storing the energy generated on the downward slope in a small battery and releasing it through a handlebar control when needed on the uphill, a potential gold mine when you consider the aging population and the increase in leisure time created by early retirement. I have four pages of specs and the estimated cost of a prototype done by the time Graham arrives two hours later. He walks into the kitchen wearing a blue linen suit with a briefcase held to his chest and seeing me at the table goes stiff as a board. I haven't seen him in five years and the first thing I notice is that he's got bags under his eyes and he looks exhausted. When I open my arms to embrace him he takes a step backward.
      "What's the matter?" I ask. Here is my child wary of me in a strange kitchen in California, his mother's ashes spread long ago over the Potomac, the objects of our lives together stored in boxes or sold.
      "You actually came," he says.
      "I've invented a new bicycle," I say, but this seems to reach him like news of some fresh death. Ben hugs Graham there in front of me. I watch my son rest his head against this fellow's shoulder like a tired soldier on a train. "It's going to have a self-charging battery," I say, sitting again at the table to review my sketches.

 

~

With Graham here my idea is picking up speed, and while he's in the shower I unpack my bags, rearrange the furniture in the cottage, and tack my specs to the wall. Returning to the house, I ask Ben if I can use the phone and he says that's fine, and then he tells me, "Graham hasn't been sleeping so great lately, but I know he really does want to see you."
      "Sure, no hard feelings, fine."
       "He's been dealing with a lot recently . . . maybe some things you could talk to him about . . . and I think you might—"
      "Sure, sure, no hard feelings," and then I call my lawyer, my engineer, my model builder, three advertising firms whose numbers I find in the yellow pages, the American Association of Retired Persons—that market will be key—an old college friend who I remember once told me he'd competed in the Tour de France, figuring he'll know the bicycle-industry angle, my bank manager to discuss financing, the Patent Office, the Cal Tech physics lab, the woman I took to dinner the week before I left Baltimore, and three local liquor stores before I find one that will deliver a case of Dom Pérignon.
      "That'll be for me!" I call out to Graham as he emerges from the bedroom to answer the door what seems only minutes later. He moves slowly and seems sapped of life.
      "What's this?"
      "We're celebrating! There's a new project in the pipeline!"
      Graham stares at the bill as though he's having trouble reading it. Finally, he says, "This is twelve hundred dollars. We're not buying it."
      I tell him Schwinn will drop that on donuts for the sales reps when I'm done with this bike, that Oprah Winfrey's going to ride it through the halftime show at the Super Bowl.
      "My dad made a mistake," he says to the delivery guy.
      I end up having to go outside and pay for it through the window of the truck with a credit card the man is naïve enough to accept and I carry it back to the house myself.
      "What am I going to do?" I hear Graham whisper.
      I round the corner into the kitchen and they fall silent. The two of them make a handsome couple standing there in the gauzy, expiring light of evening. When I was born you could have arrested them for kissing. There ensues an argument that I only half bother to participate in concerning the champagne and my enthusiasm, a recording he learned from his mother; he presses play and the fraction of his ancestry that suffered from conventionalism speaks through his mouth like a ventriloquist: your-idea-is-fantasy-calm-down-it-will- be-the-ruin-of-you-medication-medication-medication. He has a good mind, my son, always has, and somewhere the temerity to use it, to spear mediocrity in the eye, but in a world that encourages nothing of the sort the curious boy becomes the anxious man. He must suffer his people's regard for appearances. Sad. I begin to articulate this with Socratic lucidity, which seems only to exacerbate the situation.
      "Why don't we just have some champagne," Ben interjects. "You two can talk this over at dinner."
      An admirable suggestion. I take three glasses from the cupboard, remove a bottle from the case, pop the cork, fill the glasses, and propose a toast to their health.
      My niece's Saab does eighty-five without a shudder on the way to dinner. With the roof down, smog blowing through my hair, I barely hear Graham, who's shouting something from the passenger's seat. He's probably worried about a ticket, which for the high of this ride I'd pay twice over and tip the officer to boot. Sailing down the freeway I envision a lane of bicycles quietly recycling power once lost to the simple act of pedaling. We'll have to get the environmentalists involved, which could mean government money for research and a lobbying arm to navigate any legislative interference. Test marketing in L.A. will increase the chance of celebrity endorsements, and I'll probably need to do a book on the germination of the idea for release with the first wave of product. I'm thinking early 2001. The advertising tag line hits me as we glide beneath an overpass: Making Every Revolution Count.
      There's a line at the restaurant and when I try to slip the maître d' a twenty, Graham holds me back.
      "Dad," he says, "you can't do that."
      "Remember the time I took you to the Ritz in that Rolls-Royce with the right-hand drive and you told me the chicken in your sandwich was tough and I spoke to the manager and we got the meal for free? And you drew a diagram of the tree fort you wanted and it gave me an idea for storage containers."
      He nods his head.
      "Come on, where's your smile?"
      I walk up to the maître d', but when I hand him the twenty he gives me a funny look and I tell him he's a lousy shit for pretending he's above that sort of thing. "You want a hundred?" I ask, and am about to give him an even larger piece of my mind when Graham turns me around and says, "Please don't."
      "What kind of work are you doing?" I ask him.
      "Dad," he says, "just settle down." His voice is so quiet, so meek.
      "I asked you what kind of work you do."
      "I work at a brokerage."
      A brokerage! What didn't I teach this kid? "What do you do for them?"
      "Stocks. Listen, Dad, we need—"
      "Stocks!" I say. "Christ! Your mother would turn in her grave if she had one."
      "Thanks," he says under his breath.
      "What was that?" I ask.
      "Forget it."
      At this point, I notice everyone in the foyer is staring at us. They all look like they were in television fifteen years ago, the men wearing Robert Wagner turtlenecks and blazers. A woman in mauve hot pants with a shoulder bag the size of her torso appears particularly disapproving and self-satisfied, and I feel like asking her what it is she does to better the lot of humanity. "You'll be riding my bicycle in three years," I tell her. She draws back as though I had thrown a rat on the carpet.
      Once we're seated it takes ten minutes to get bread and water on the table, and sensing a bout of poor service, I begin to jot on a napkin the time of each of our requests and the hour of its arrival. Also, as it occurs to me:

  • Hollow-core chrome frame with battery mounted over rear tire wired to rear-wheel engine housing wired to handlebar control/thumb-activated accelerator; warning to cyclist concerning increased speed of crankshaft during application of stored revolutions. Power break?
  • Biographer file: Graham as my muse, mystery thereof, see storage container, pancake press, flying teddy bear, renovations of barn for him to play in, power bike.

    Graham disagrees with me when I try to send back a second bottle of wine, apparently under the impression that one ought to accept spoiled goods in order not to hurt anybody's feelings. This strikes me as maudlin, but I let it go for the sake of harmony. Something has changed in him. Appetizers take a startling nineteen minutes to appear.
      "You should start thinking about quitting your job," I say. "I've decided I'm not going to stay on the sidelines with this one. The power bike's a flagship product, the kind of thing that could support a whole company. We stand to make a fortune, Graham, and I can do it with you." One of the Robert Wagners cranes his neck to look at me from a neighboring booth.
      "Yeah, I bet you want a piece of the action, buddy," I say, which sends him back to his endive salad in a hurry. Graham listens as I elaborate the business plan: there's start-up financing for which we'll easily attract venture capital, the choice of location for the manufacturing plant—you have to be careful about state regulations—executives to hire, designers to work under me, a sales team, accountants, benefits, desks, telephones, workshops, paychecks, taxes, computers, copiers, decor, water coolers, doormats, parking spaces, electric bills. Maybe a humidifier. A lot to consider. As I speak, I notice that others in the restaurant are turning to listen as well. It's usually out of the corner of my eye that I see it and the people disguise it well, returning to their conversations in what they probably think is convincing pantomime. The Westinghouse reindeer pops to mind. How ingenious they were to plant him there in the diner I ate at each Friday morning, knowing my affection for the Christmas myth, determined to steal my intellectual property.

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