Lady Gaga and the Firing Pin

Hi Pete—

Good to hear from you.

I’m not going to fool around much. You asked for something on Dad, so here it is. It might take me several days to tell this story. It won’t be written too pretty either, because I’m not going to redraft anything.

I think I can get through it without drinking again. But keep in mind that you’re the only person in the family who could get away with asking for this. You owe me nephew. Whatever you’re doing with this stuff, you owe me. If I go back on the bottle, I’m not going to blame myself for a change.

I’ll blame you.

So yes, as you heard: Dad used to play this game with a gun.

We never called it a game back then, of course. Boy, that would have made him madder than a bull to hear that. But it was a game, and I think I realized that pretty quick.

He’d put the gun up to his temple, and threaten to kill himself. He’d talk about how we didn’t love him enough, how he couldn’t just take it anymore, it was time to end it. He’d slide a bullet into the chamber. We’d all be crying—all three of us girls, Billy, and Mom—pleading with him not to do it, telling him we did love him, telling him we would do better, apologizing for whatever it was we had just done.

Finally, he’d put that old .45 down. Put it in his lap, and then Mom would take it from him, put it back in the roller-top desk where it belonged.

And then we’d go back to watching television, if you can believe that. Oh, we would be a bit tense, sure, especially at first. But we’d soon sure enough get lost in whatever it was that was on the television.

It seemed to happen quite a bit when The Sound of Music would be on in the Spring, around Easter time or so, or maybe that’s just my mind playing tricks with me. It certainly happened one time when that movie was on. And I remember another year, I think, being upset that we just couldn’t watch that movie from beginning until end—that was when I was a bit younger, must have been ’76 or ’77—that we had to stop watching and convince my Dad not to kill himself during the middle of the movie. During one of my favorite songs, at that.

I noticed pretty quick that Dad never got suicidal on New Year’s Day when all that football was on, or in March, when all that college basketball nonsense was all over the TV set.

We had to talk suicide and love and how screwed up life was when my favorite movie was on.

But I knew if I said anything, anything at all, Dad would just say I loved Julie Andrews and The Sound of Music better than him, and he’d keep the gun out even longer as a result, and we might not get to see the movie at all. So I kept my mouth shut. I got good at doing that. I kept my mouth shut for most of a lifetime, until I finally started opening it a bit at AA meetings.

Another story for another time I guess.

The kids in The Sound of Music all seemed so happy, even before Julie Andrews starts to teach them to sing. The movie wants you to believe the father is strict, but for the life of me I can’t see it, not then, not now. At least that father wasn’t taking out a .45 and talking about blowing his dang head off right in front of them, so the Von Trapp kids just seemed like big whiners to me. The songs were pretty, and so were the dresses, and like I say, I kept my mouth shut and let Kate and Billy and Amy and Mom try to talk the old coot down.

Sometimes I think I did love Julie Andrews more than Dad.

She certainly brought more pleasure and comfort to my life than he ever did. Would it have been so bad if he had just gone and put a bullet in his own head? And if he was going to agonize about it, why did it have to be during that movie? I still can’t watch that movie without thinking about guns and suicides and emotional manipulation. It makes me angry. He managed to poison so many sources of pleasure for us. Even now, with that man dead and in the grave for fourteen years, I still can’t watch Julie Andrews in peace.

That’s it for tonight, Pete. That’s it for tonight. I’ll try another run at this in the morning. Maybe.

I’m crying.

I feel so old and stupid.

Maybe I’m supposed to be extremely tragic and wistful about everything that has happened. These days you’re supposed to take a certain tone with these kinds of things, tell the story in a way that shows how much you’ve been damaged, how strong you are to have survived, how much you wish everything could have been different. You use hushed, reverent tones, you try to be poetic about the whole thing. I’ve read the damn novels that do this, by the by, I’ve seen the movies that try to be oh-so-very-honest about these family traumas. Watch the Oscars sometime. They’re filled with movies that are very honest, with serious-faced actors, being very earnest and genuine about all the fake pain they’ve fake felt.

Honesty that tastes like lies, poetic sentences that grate on my ears, and I just wish someone would, for the love of God, talk in a normal tone of voice. Screw honesty, if that’s what honesty is. Talk to Amy, yes talk to your Mother if you want to hear the usual dripping self-pity that goes with this kind of story. If you want to be convinced about how tragic we all are, Amy will provide a Tennessee Williams heroine, six evenings a week, matinee on Sunday after church, gently modified Mississippi accent included, free of charge. She loves being a victim. Just do not expect her to fulfill any other emotional need other than her starving, ravenous need for attention.

I’m not dismissing what happened. And there are things that I want to know, even now, but I can’t answer those questions for you Pete, not when I can’t answer them for myself. Who was that woman who came into the hospital with Mom that day and finally convinced her to see her newborn baby? I do want to know that. And why couldn’t Mom be there for my sister? Why couldn’t she put a stop to this nonsense with the gun?

I’m a bit angry with Mom about that one, or I have been, but then there’s other times, I think, that even my own anger was bullshit. So Mom didn’t react well in the hospital when she first heard the news that Kate had a cleft palate. She spent the rest of her damn life trying to make sure that Kate was okay, and making sure Kate was okay was not always easy. And you know what? Kate is the one who has the least problem with the whole thing. Because the woman is okay, and Kate knows it was pretty much Mom who made it that way. She’s Mom’s biggest defender. If I try to say something about Mom, Kate just shrugs. Reprimands me. Changes the subject: “You know what, in those times, with the attitudes she grew up with, it would have been tough. Tough to know what to do. She was still pretty young. Twenty-three for goodness’s sake.”

Then she gets on with it. Kate knows what her mother did, and what she didn’t do. So what if her mother refused to see her newborn daughter for the first three days of her existence because of her twisted face.

At least the woman had the good sense not to play with a gun during the The Sound of Music. She couldn’t put a stop to that stupidity, but then, I’m not sure what I would have done in her position.

Crying again. Try another shot at this in the morning.

I’m sitting here, Pete, in a very pleasant apartment in Tacoma, Washington. It’s a sunny day outside, maybe a bit too sunny: with global warming and everything, it seems like we don’t get as much rain as we used to, and the whole area looks a bit parched. NPR is slinging its milquetoast politics all over the kitchen, trying its damnedest to defend that woman, and its goddamnedest to condemn Bernie without being too explicit about it. I’ll probably go to a rally later; the adjunct faculty have organized a get-together with the local unions to support Sanders. I haven’t had a drink in fourteen years. My own daughter is doing well, and is speaking to me for—what is it?—for a good five years running. I’m enjoying teaching, and I’ll enjoy giving it up even more in three semesters.

I’m trying to say I’m happy, Pete.

And then your damn handwritten letter. You always had a Victorian streak to you, which explains how you ended up back in the South, teaching Victorian history. Or maybe Victorian history has invaded your brain with Victorian etiquette. No doubt that is what Amy would say.

Damn woman was never proud enough of you, as far as I’m concerned. You were the first fruit off this family tree of crazy fruit that ever got a Ph.D, and she always makes such a show of downplaying it. I’m not sure why. There’s that family thing, about making sure no one feels bad because someone else did something good, but that also seems to mean that no one ever gets to feel good when they did something worth doing either. So everyone goes around, generally feeling terrible, but at least it’s all equally terrible.

I’m sick of that too.

I keep getting distracted. I’m going to give you the rest of this story, Pete. It just means dragging myself out of this pleasant now, in Tacoma, and back into that not so pleasant past, over there on the other side of those mountains, in Idaho.

Amy. The only thing she ever did worth doing was marrying your father. She’s been a pain in my butt most of my life, but I have to admit, she doesn’t run away from her problems. She never came close to crawling up into a bottle the way that I did. Instead she ran off and dropped her problems in the lap of a man. A good one, yes, but a man all the same.

Amy brought Bob home to meet us. I was eighteen at that time. My birthday was a few days before, I remember, and Amy and Bob came home from college. They were lovely that spring, they gave me a glimpse into the more adult, more expansive life that was waiting for me on the other side of the summer. We liked each other a bit more back then, Amy and I. Not so much poisonous water had flowed under such broken-down bridges. Back then, long before the cancer, your father was so tall, so handsome. I wondered if he might have some little brother stashed away back in McCall.

Bob was respectful to Mom and Dad too. He wasn’t southern, he was definitely Idaho, but then Amy was going to the University of Idaho, and our move out of Mississippi was ten years behind us at that point. Even Mom had given up the idea that we were ever going to move back South, and started to reconcile herself to the fact that her daughters and her son would likely take up with Yankees. Accepting your father was a step in that sane direction of healthy acceptance of everything that had happened to us.

His dark good looks likely came from more than a touch of Indian blood on his mother’s side. (I know, I know Pete. ‘Native American,’ or ‘First Nations,’ or whatever the hell. I’m old. Get used to it). Amy had been very clear that no one should ask him about being Shoshone or Nez Perce—I can never remember which it is, or maybe it’s both, I’m sorry Pete—but I don’t think Bob would have been offended in the least. It might have shown we had some interest in his background. Bob has only gotten closer to the tribe since those days, you know that. It was Amy, really, trying to tamp down on that bit of racial mixing back there, trying to make her parents feel alright about it all.

And you know, they mostly seemed to be. Bob ate all of Mom’s fried chicken supper, he inhaled the cornbread, drank two glasses of iced tea. He talked Baptist theology a bit with Daddy. He talked to Kate about the latest Star Wars movie—the one where that tall robot cuts his son’s hand off at the end—which Kate was just dying to see. Your father was a hit with all of us.

That’s what set Daddy off, you know.

Ugh. You can tell my mind is going back there when I start calling him ‘Daddy,’ like some brainwashed southern belle with more breasts and hairspray than sense. But Daddy hated it when another man, in any way, became the center of attention. The man didn’t even have to be in the room for it to set him off. I think one time Mom set him off by speaking of the visiting preacher a little too warmly.

But here was this mixed-blood Yankee-Indian standing in his kitchen and in his living room, eating his wife’s fried chicken, and all of us, each and every one of us, was falling for him just as much as Amy already had.

My gently developing crush was probably keeping me from seeing anything too clearly, and when The Sound of Music started to come on that night, I was about as happy as I could be. I should have known better, really. But I was eighteen, I would be headed off to university in the fall, it was a soft spring night, and my sister’s gentle, kind boyfriend was making me feel like I was smart and pretty.

The gun came out not long after the opening number.

Kate must have been thirteen or so. Young enough to start crying in a weak moment, old enough to be devastated by shame when it happened. The scars on her lip were fresh. She had had a surgery not too long before, and the thin angry red line kept vibrating, and it felt like Kate’s face might crack open.

I can’t think about that face, Pete, not too much. Even today I fear I will crack open when I think about it. It feels like my entire soul might fall into the cracks that open up in that past. There are images in your memory that can hold all of the pain and the sorrow and the grief, and Kate’s fresh scar that night holds it all for me Pete.

In any event, Bob, your father, turned towards my father, who was holding the gun against his temple and weeping. Of course the bastard was crying. I’m never sure if that was real, or if your granddaddy wasn’t the most impressive damn crocodile of all time.

Bob did not look panicked, or worried, or sad, or fear-stricken, the way the rest of us did.

Instead, your father looked baffled, and I can’t begin to tell you how healing I found his bafflement. I needed, so desperately, we all did, needed someone to be baffled by this whole stupid business. We needed someone to show us that we weren’t tragic, but just a bit mixed-up and silly, and to think that, even for a moment, felt just wonderful. There have been a few bad nights in my life since when Bob’s bafflement was about the only thing that got me through.

Bob looked at Dad, and said, “Why would you do that?” He was really asking a question: he seemed puzzled, not aggressive, almost as if he were asking the best way to put a carburetor back in an engine.

“Because no one loves me enough.” Dad said the same thing he always did, the same thing I would hear on the phone through the rest of my twenties, the same thing I heard on his death-bed before he finally passed away in 2000 and sent me into a year-long bender I still can’t recall clearly. But this time Dad sounded confused, as if he didn’t quite believe what he was saying when this earnest boy with dark brown eyes stared straight at him and asked him an honest question in a level voice.

“Are you sure, Mr. Mankam?” Bob paused, and looked around the room. “I think all of these people, everyone here, loves you very much. I hope one day that I have a family that loves me as much as these people do. Your life looks very rich to me.”

Daddy put down the gun.

The television burst into “My Favorite Things.”

During a commercial break, Mom and Amy went back into the kitchen to make some marshmallow snacks. I came too. I was putting the peanut butter onto the crackers, and Amy was sticking the marshmallows onto the peanut butter, and we were chatting about some boy at school I liked, and we were managing to do a pretty good job of passing as happy.

A few moments later Bob trailed in, with a worshipful Kate in tow. I started to laugh at the expression on Kate, but then I saw why she looked the way she did. Bob had the .45 in his left hand. He asked my mother for some paper towels. She found some immediately, without making a comment. Bob laid the pistol onto the paper towel, he took out a small set of tools (why did he have those tools on him, Pete? You should ask him that. Did Amy set this up? Had Bob come prepared? Or did the man just walk around with those kinds of tools?).

My mother, Amy, Kate and myself, sat and watched as Bob took the gun apart. His hands moved quickly, without seeming rushed. When I think of the word ‘deft,’ I think of Bob pulling that gun completely apart.

When he was done, we women sat looking at that deconstructed gun, weighing each part’s role in the pain that weapon had caused over the years.

Then, Bob selected one small part from the parts, and set it aside.

Then he put the bullet into his own shirt pocket.

Then he began to reassemble the gun in a series of quick movements, no less assured. When Bob was finished, he took the one part he had left out of the gun, and handed it to my mother.

“The gun will never fire without this.” He said it in a flat, matter-of-fact, tone of voice. My mother nodded her head. She folded the part into her apron, and I didn’t see it again until she handed it to me three days before she died at Sacred Heart Hospital in Spokane, Washington, last November, three and a half decades later. Back there in 1980, Mama took the crackers and the marshmallows out of the oven, and folded everyone’s share into paper towels, and she got a glass of milk for Dad, and we all marched back into the living room. The entire series of movements must have taken Bob less than fifteen minutes: we were back out in the living room watching The Sound of Music, and I remember thinking we had hardly missed a single scene. Daddy said something like, we had been awful quiet back there, did we have some kind of a secret?

Kate laughed, and nodded her head, as if she were afraid that speaking would undo her joy.

That’s all I can manage Pete. That’s it.

It didn’t start there. It didn’t end there. But maybe, just maybe that night tells you what you need to know. Like I said, call your mother, if you want to know more. Amy will act like she doesn’t want to talk about it, but that’s the act, and she’ll love talking about it. Needs to, most likely. And it’s high time you called your mother. Even if she is a pain in our collective familial rear-end.

Give all my love to your father. I know he doesn’t understand much now, and I wish I had the courage to visit him in there, but tell him I love him.

I have ever since that night.

P.S. I laid this letter out last night, so that I could mail it first thing in the morning. But the universe has its own way of being a royal festering asshole of blood hemorrhoids once in a while, if you will forgive my none-too-ladylike language.

I made the mistake of turning on the Oscars last night. Some cute young blonde—Gaga or whatever babyish name she has given to herself—came out singing a tribute to Julie Andrews before I could do much of anything.

And so I sat there before the television, helpless, weeping.

She may be young, but she sang the songs, and I could hear them for the first time in years, and they split me open, and I fell into the crack.

Pete, I ought to shoot you. But I have no more bullets.

So instead I’m sending you this firing pin.

You asshole.  

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