The Sinking of the Houston
When I became a parent of young children I also became a purposeful and relentless opportunist of sleep. In fact sleep functioned as that period’s subtle denominator. I found myself capable of taking a nap just about anywhere, even when standing in a subway car or riding an escalator. I wasn’t the only one. Out and about, I spotted drowsy or dozing people everywhere; and I realized that a kind of mechanized mass somnambulism is an essential component of modern life; and I gained a better understanding of the siesta and the snooze and the death wish.
Then my three boys grew big—grew from toddling alarmists into wayward urban doofuses neurologically unequipped to perceive the risks incidental to their teenage lives. Several nights a week I lie awake in bed until the front door has sighed shut behind every last one of them. Even then, even once they’re all safely home, there are disquieting goings-on. Objects are put in motion, to frightening sonic effect. A creaking cupboard hinge is an SOS. A spoon in a cereal bowl is a tocsin.
The key point is that I no longer have the ability to nap at will—to recover, in nickels of unconsciousness, a lost hypnotic legacy. A round-the-clock jitteriness prevails.
As a consequence, the concept of peace and quiet
has assumed an italicized personal importance. Who can say, of course, what “peace and quiet” means? It certainly doesn’t denote the experience produced by being by oneself. I can offer only a subjective definition: the state of affairs in which (1) one finds oneself at home; (2) there are people around whom one wants to have around, not least because it means that one doesn’t have to worry about where else they might be; (3) one sits in one’s armchair; and (4) the people around leave one alone.
The phenomenon of the Dad Chair needs no investigation here. I’ll just state that there came a moment when the whole business of taking care of the guys—of their need to be woken up, clothed, fed, transported, coached, cleaned, bedded down, constantly kept safe and constantly captained—altered me. The alteration made me identify with the shipman, working in high and howling winds in the Bay of Biscay, who dreams of the bathtubs of La Rochelle. This led me to buy a black leatherette armchair and to designate it as my haven. I’ve got to say, it has worked out pretty well.
But of late, the fifteen-year-old, the middle son, has taken to disturbing me. I’ll be sitting there, doing stuff on my laptop, when he’ll approach and pull off my noise-canceling headphones.
“What is it?” I ask him.
“Have you heard of the Duvaliers?”
“The Duvaliers. The dictators of Haiti.”
“What about them?”
“There’s two Duvaliers,” he says. “There’s the father and there’s the son. Do you know that they used rape to punish their political opponents?”
He says, “They—”
“I don’t want to hear about it. I know all about the Duvaliers. They were horrible. I know all about it.”
“But, Dad, I’ll bet you don’t know. There was one time—”
“Stop harassing me!” I shout. “Stop bothering me with this stuff! Leave me alone! I lived through it! I don’t want to discuss it!”
He answers, in his mild way, “You didn’t exactly live through it. You just heard about it.”
I understand that my son is trying to get a precise sense of the world he is about to enter—the wide world. I understand that this can be a difficult process. I understand that it’s a good thing that he comes to me with these questions, which do him nothing but credit, and that these are golden moments that must be savored. I understand all that.
Note that my fifteen-year-old is a distinct case but not a special one. His two brothers are the same. Each, in his own way, threatens the peace and the quiet.
“Where is East Timor?” this particular son asks.
“Look it up,” I say.
His voice has arrived from his bedroom, where he’s lying in his bunk bed, in a T-shirt and tracksuit bottoms and skateboarding socks, reading his phone. Sometimes he’ll come out of the bedroom and sit on the arm of my armchair and cast an eye over my screen while he talks. Which is exasperating. What I do online is my business.
He calls out, “Do you know who Charles Taylor is?”
I’m not answering that.
He comes out of the brothers’ room, which is what we call the space in which the three boys are cooped up. “He was a guerilla leader. In Liberia. He had an army made up of children.”
“Stop right there,” I say.
My son stops where he is, because he thinks I’m telling him that he should stop advancing toward me. From a distance of about three yards he says, “He made the children do some really bad things. Really, really bad things. He made them shoot their own parents. I think Taylor may have been the worst of them all.”
I remove my reading glasses and look him in the eye. “C’est la vie,
” I tell him.
Copyright © 2018 by Joseph O'Neill. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.