Scare Tactics

Allow me to introduce my self: I am Linda Viable. My father, Papa Viable, was some sort of scientist who worked in a laboratory in Baltimore and who always seemed rather distant and aloof towards me. I have a respectable job in the National Weather Bureau in Boulder, Colorado, although, just between you and me, if I needed to know something practical, like whether I needed to take an umbrella to work, the last thing I would do is consult the local forecast posted in my building. My own position at the NWB is very important but also very “hush-hush,” so please don’t press me for details. Let’s just say that I’m the glue that holds the joint together.

My brother Paul was an all-round schnook who used to devote large blocks of his time while we were growing up toward articulating my deficiencies as a human being, as well as demonstrating the pugilistic expertise he had acquired at summer camp. He had an interesting career, though. Encouraged by Papa Viable, he followed in the old man’s footsteps and also got a Ph.D.  But while Papa’s area of expertise was in the sciences, Paul, perhaps sensing his own limitations, opted for an arcane branch of economics. His first job was as a professor at a large Midwest university, where he excelled at lecturing to captive audiences of adoring students and ingratiating himself with all the school’s secretaries.  Unfortunately, Paul’s tenure at the university was cut short after three years by the technicality that he hadn’t secured any publications in academic journals.

Paul’s second career was as an economist, and later as quantitative research “geek” in a bank that became an industry leader in the “derivatives business (“derivatives” are contracts, much like “futures” contracts, that enable market participants to hedge or speculate on financial instrument movements without restrictions as to their start and end dates). Later, after leaving the bank, Paul stumbled onto his third career as a novelist by publishing a thinly disguised autobiographical memoir, entitled In My Mind’s Eye, which has been critically acclaimed. Who knew the boy possessed such talent? While the book’s “macguffin”, or literal plot device, was   loosely based on his experiences in the financial markets, the underlying theme revolves around the struggle between Truth and Beauty in the central character’s life. Most movingly portrayed is the fourth chapter entitled “I love the way I sing that song,” which recounts the final moments of Papa Viable before his 1983 demise from Alzheimer’s disease.  But my most vivid recollection was how Paul “threw me under the bus” by portraying his character as an only child.

It’s no surprise, though, that Paul thought the world of his father, since Papa Viable always integrated visits to see Paul into his business trips. Paul was something of a “troubled youth” (just as he is now a “troubled adult”). It seems as though he was always getting himself into one scrape or another, and his father would always show up once again to “bail him out of trouble.” Once, when he had managed to get himself into one of those exclusive private schools, he learned that one of the upperclassmen’s favorite pastimes was to beat up the underclassmen, enabling Paul to gain a little appreciation for how “the other half lives”.   One day, Paul was sitting in his room during one of his father’s visits when suddenly, the door was thrown open, and an intruder angrily shouted, Viable!” Although Paul was visibly shaken, his father just calmly observed the ruffian, until this embarrassed youth slunk out without further comment, as Paul’s father stared him down. At the conclusion of that term. Paul quietly transferred to the local public high school. I heard that Paul cried all day when his father died.

Well, I’ve been saving the best for last, so here she is: although my mother outlived Papa Viable by 26 years, what she did with all that extra time is anybody’s guess. I know her favorite pastimes were secluding herself in the house and smoking like a chimney. When I once asked her about these obsessions, she would only provide the cryptic, “Greta Garbo–like” explanation “I want to die”.  Of course, the fact that the actual roadmap of getting from here to there might not entail a straight line didn’t seem to have occurred to her, or that along the way, it might be a “bumpy ride”.

A memorable event for which I got “the book thrown at me” was the occasion of Paul’s wedding in 2005. Paul had telephoned to tell me that he had proposed to Susan, one of his graduate school sweethearts, and to invite me to the event. In my delirium, I had inadvertently “spilled the beans “ to our mother, for which I received a lengthy dressing down on how I had “cut in front” of her in line, since I had blurted out the information before she was cognizant of it. Don’t misunderstand me – she had no intention of attending herself, but it was the principle of the thing, don’t you know? Susan eventually met our mother at her house before the ceremony, and when Susan stepped out of the car to give her a hug, she was summarily dismissed with the quip, “we don’t do things like that in our family.” I think they took some photographs to commemorate that meeting between mother and the two guests, but later, there seemed to have been some sort of “falling out.” It was the last time Paul would ever see his mother alive.

Incidentally, let me go on record right now in saying that, although I only met Susan once, the girl has to be some sort of saint to put up with Paul for all these years. Using the excuse that she still uses her maiden name instead of changing it officially to “Susan Viable”, he’s been known to speak to her in his threatening, “Richard Widmark “– like voice. Still, I can see his point of view when people address him with her maiden name, but I don’t think that such a small humiliation is such a big deal. He should just get over it.

But getting back to mother for just a moment, the interaction that redefined our relationship forever occurred shortly after I had read Bill Styron’s book Sophie’s Choice. If you recall, the source of the book’s title was that the mother of two children, a boy and a girl, was put in a situation where she was ordered to choose which one of her two children would be permitted to survive and which would be executed. One day, I impulsively asked mother what she would do in such circumstances. I was stunned that her response was immediate, as if it required no reflection: she would choose to save Paul, on the grounds that he was the man in the family. I just smiled and nodded my head, but, like I say, I never thought about her the same way after that.

Our interactions after that involved long distance “fire drills” when she would telephone me that one of her mechanical possessions had “gone haywire.” There were three separate occasions of these calls that I can remember: one involving the oil burning appliance in the basement, another being the washing machine, also located in the basement; and a third concerning her fleet of baby television sets, one for each room in the house. Although normal people might own one set in the den or family room, mother didn’t truck with “putting all her eggs in one basket,” so she diversified her collection. My guess is that she avoided the more traditional approach on account of the emphasis that it placed on her state of isolation.

In all three cases, I arrived on the scene to replace the deficient appliance with a “new and improved” version. In the first two cases, she graciously received the new items. Regarding the new television set, though, I drove her to the nearby shopping mall to pick out a new one, but she balked. She asked the salesman if she could open the box to permit her to first inspect the new set, but he replied in the negative, explaining that if she was dissatisfied once she got it home, she could return it to the store. Perhaps she felt it would be too much trouble to follow the man’s advice, but her reaction was to summarily turn around and exit the building.   I thought her reaction was overly rash, and self-destructive as well, since she would not obtain the desired television set. Little did I suspect that this impetuousness would become “the new normal” in her life.

There were just two more occasions when the paths of mother and myself would intersect. Mother’s younger sister Edith would telephone mother every so often to check up on her to make sure she was alright. If something had gone awry, she would then alert me of this development in a sort of “Tinker-to Evers-to Chance” kind of manner.   Well, one day in 2005, I get this call from aunt Edie alerting me that mother was not answering her phone, and that I should investigate. When she didn’t answer my attempts to contact her either, I became rather concerned myself, and late in the day, I notified the local police. When their attempts to contact her met with similar results, they forcibly broke into the house. Well, it seems that mother had been very tired and had disconnected the phone, in order to get some rest. After first “chewing out” the cops and threatening them with a lawsuit, they tattled and “passed the buck” to me.   I subsequently received a horrendous “tongue-lashing” for my troubles, as she accused me of being a meddler and a busy-body, and that hereafter I should just mind my own business.

So, naturally, when I received another call from aunt Edie in 2009, I was reluctant to get involved. I told her I would investigate the matter, but I thought the safe approach was to “sit on it” for a few days until I got more information. As it turned out, this time, mother had had tripped on a rug, fallen on the floor, broken her hip, and laid there on the floor for five days without food, water, or bathroom facilities. When a neighbor, alerted by the smell, found her, she was dead.

It’s a simple enough matter to conclude that mother was clinically depressed, but that clearly wasn’t the whole story. I remember when she was young, she wasn’t like that. Two memories in particular stand out.   When we lived out in the country in rural Maryland, and she would take Paul and me on long walks in the adjacent horse pasture, and she would give each of us a half of a piece of “chicklets” chewing gum for the trip. My other memory was of the time the family celebrated her birthday by taking her on a boat cruise. Everything was fine until I got seasick. I could hear the frustration in her voice as she begged the captain to turn the boat around, but to no avail. “Today was my birthday,” she told the captain in a resigned tone when we had finally made it back to shore. At the end, the other passengers derisively sang “happy birthday” to her.

I once asked mother privately what she saw in my father, to which she answered, “he made me laugh.” When I put the same question to Papa Viable, he got this smile on his face, and said, “Because she was beautiful.” That’s all I remember about them.

I realize now that all three of them have been in cahoots against me all along, conspiring together, and just waiting for their chance to launch a preemptive strike against me. But mostly it was mother—always behaving irrationally and just scaring the life out of me. It’s just like that famous prizefighter once said, when he claimed he wasn’t afraid of another boxer who was faster, or smarter, or in better condition, but he was terrified of one who was crazy, because such an individual is unpredictable. Anyway, I ‘ve already decided on how I’m going to get my revenge: I’m never going to have any children. That’ll fix her wagon.