This is How It Happened
As long as I’ve known Howard, he’s been dead.
Now, that’s not entirely true, but it might as well be, for I have no real memories of him, only the twilit images from pretend memories inspired by dreams, or memories of dreams, or memories extended beyond the ragged edges of black-and-white photos. Maybe all I have of Howard is mere memory of memory, a borrowed memory not even my own.
Howard died under questionable circumstances when I was three, leaving my mother, the lovely young widow, with six awkward and malnourished-looking children to pray the rosary and eat white bread and talk about their dear, dead father for years to come.
And talk we did. We all talked of him, passed on stories of his gentleness, his quirky interests, his love for us, his violent seizures, his absentminded brilliance. It was my mother’s stories that gave Howard his rich afterlife. Like how as a first grader he helped the eighth grade boys with their math, how he was disappointed in the imperfection of girls when he first started wearing glasses, how he never drove a car, how he could walk all the way to the downtown library and back, reading a book, and never once look up, how he was a virgin on his wedding night, how he could fit his two huge hands around the narrowness of my mother’s waist touching finger to finger, thumb to thumb, how he could pick up all six children at once and carry them off to bed, how the profile of his face looked in shadow.
This dear, dead daddy became a saint, a martyr, a hero who now shares rank with other fathers glamorized by death: John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. Howard, struck down in his prime, mystery shrouding his death, could do no wrong.
Howard’s image often comes to me, for many men look like my father. Ordinary men, movie stars, academics, and punks. They all look like Howard. I see him in the bus reading paperback science fiction. I see him in the public library lost in the 500s among astrophysics and quantum mechanics. I see him as the quiet, proud hero in the movies. I see him ironic and goofy-faced on my TV screen. Even famous men can look like Howard. Ernie Kovaks, Gregory Peck, Buddy Holly, Rod Serling, John Lennon, Al Franken, Jeff Goldblum, David Byrne, Denzel Washington, Bruce Lee, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, all look like Howard. Men who look nothing like each other and hold nothing in common but the mere fact that each, in his own way, looks exactly like Howard.
I call Maribeth, my sister two thousand miles away—she sees Howard too—so when I tell her of a Howard sighting, she doesn’t laugh.
“Hey, did I tell you? I’m taking a class from a guy who looks just like . . . .”
“Yes, he’s got the big lips, the green eyes. He’s even got the hair.”
“Which hair? Fat-Howard style or the skinny-Howard style?” Howard, like Elvis, had thin-and-young and fat-and-middle-aged versions.
“Skinny version, thick and curly and fluffy like Eraserhead.”
“You mean that guy in the creepy movie?”
“Yeah. Skinny, and gorgeous. I mean he’s really hot. He was a competitive ski bum so he’s tall and athletic. I think of him as Glam Howard.”
“Howard couldn’t ski.”
Maribeth likes to show off that since she’s five years older, she knows the real Howard. But I, the youngest, can see the essence of Howard in this man. I know a Howard when I see one.
Better yet, I know a Howard when I read one, for I’ve developed a latent interest in physics. Not that I understand much about string theory, but I’m seduced by the poetry of Einstein, the audacity of Feynman, the wit of Hawking. And now there’s this other smart guy I found on the Internet, Stephen Wolfram, who suggests that computers can digitally uncover the secrets of the universe where mathematics falls short. God, that makes sense. Howard, having been an early hard-hat-wearing computer pioneer, one who crawled around on hands and knees inside hangar-sized computers running on vacuum tubes, would have agreed.
I can’t tell Maribeth about Wolfram. Her Howard is teenaged California Howard, tanned and ripped. He’d be selling corn dogs at the Santa Cruz boardwalk reading Mad magazine, a leather holster slung low, with a slide rule at one hip and a pipe at the other.
My Howard is more intellectual than hers, and far more intense. Those books blasting the space-time continuum are way above my head, but I read them anyway, and the words comfort and tease me like breathy, wet whispers, lullabies sung by a man. Deep and warm and resonant. Singing words you couldn’t possibly understand in the exotic language of physics.
Now, how sexy is that?
My mother is still in love with Howard and this is how I know.
I know because Mom likes to tell stories about Howard out of nowhere. It doesn’t matter what she’s doing, or what’s going on around her, or who is there to hear. Poking eyes out of potatoes with a peeler, she’ll start in on how Howard was so nearsighted he could barely see without glasses, then end up telling us how big and green his eyes were. We’ll be waiting in the doctor’s office, and she’ll tell the poor old woman trying to read a magazine next to her about how her first husband was the smartest engineer at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, but that in his spare time he read Mad magazines and couldn’t spell even the most common words to save his life. With no prompting at all, she’ll tell about how Howard could never grow a beard, but drew on a mustache on his face for her with mascara instead. She tells about her dreams of Howard, dreams of love, dreams of tenderness. She tells it all, to those who want to listen and to those who don’t, in embarrassing detail, without restraint. She doesn’t even check to see if her own living husband, the man I call Dad, is listening.