Richard McCann

Richard McCann is the author of Mother of Sorrows, a work of fiction, and Ghost Letters, a collection of poems (1994 Beatrice Hawley Award, 1933 Capricorn Poetry Award). He is also the editor (with Michael Klein) of Things Shaped in Passing: More ‘Poets for Life’ Writing from the AIDS Pandemic. His fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in such magazines as The Atlantic, Ms., Esquire, Ploughshares,Tin House, and the Washington Post Magazine, and in numerous anthologies, including The O. Henry Prize Stories 2007 and Best American Essays 2000. He is currently working on a memoir, The Resurrectionist, which explores the experience and meanings of illness and mortality through a narrative exploration of his experience as a liver transplant recipient.

Sometimes, but not often, he would work on his novel, my now long-dead father. Those evenings, he set up a wooden step stool in the living room of our small suburban ranch house and then placed his battered Underwood atop it, so he could watch his favorite TV shows as he typed—Gunsmoke and Perry Mason. I knew his novel was about his childhood growing up in a mining town in central Pennsylvania, between Johnstown and Altoona, and even though I never read it, at least not back then, when he was still alive, I knew from his having described it to my brother and me that he had included within it real things from his own life: how his family had been so poor when he was a child, for instance, that they’d sometimes had to eat for dinner only what they called “coffee soup,” made from breaking up stale bread crusts into the black coffee leftover from breakfast. How he’d seen his first plane when it flew over a thicket where he was picking blackberries with his father, a railroad engineer who always called him “honeybunch.” How when he was ten a pot of boiling laundry water had tipped over from his mother’s woodstove and burned him so badly he was scarred all down his left side, from his rib cage to his ankle. Afterward, he was kept in bed for over a year, so long he’d had to learn how to walk again, he said.

As for the rest of his literary life: he admired the poems of Walt Whitman, or so I learned long after his death, when I came across the love letters he’d written to my mother in the months following their first meeting, cribbing long passages from “Song of Myself” and “I Sing the Body Electric” and mixing into them his own descriptions of my mother’s breasts and genitals. I know he loved Erle Stanley Gardner and occasionally boasted of having read over fifty of Gardner’s Perry Mason novels, including The Case of the Perjured ParrotThe Case of the Duplicate DaughterThe Case of the Lucky LegsThe Case of the Terrified Typist, and The Case of the Counterfeit Eye.

I know that his novel was important to him, because whenever he inserted a new page into the typewriter, feeding the paper into the platen and turning the knob, that page was always accompanied by four sheets of carbon paper sandwiched between four sheets of delicate onionskin, so that he always made a total of five copies on which he then penciled his meticulous revisions. I know that in the late 1940s, a few years before I was born, he wrote a letter to my maternal grandmother, asking her for a loan sufficient to a year’s pay, so he could leave the job he hated—in those years, until he reenlisted in the army, where he eventually achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel, he was a repo man for Commercial Credit. He felt he needed to work instead, he told my grandmother, on completing what he described in his letter as a “great American novel.” My grandmother declined his request by return mail, writing that she would be glad to send as her gift instead a brand-new 1948 Dumont television—a “12-inch Teleset in a Meadowbrook console cabinet”—that cost $525, a sum equivalent to $4,919.25 today. It was on this television that he later watched Gunsmoke and Perry Mason.

The Case of the Dubious Dumont, he might have said.

Or perhaps he might have simply said “thank you,” or perhaps even nothing at all. He loved watching TV as he sat in his red La-Z-Boy recliner, with me and my brother and our dog Mickey lying on the floor in a semicircle around him.

In any case, I do know that in the dozen or so years between writing to my grandmother for a loan and his sudden death at the age of fifty from fulminant liver failure, he wrote a total of thirty single-spaced pages.

I know this because I have one of the carbon copies of his manuscript right here on my desk beside me now. Across the top of the first page, he has typed in caps the words “A NOVEL,” and below that, in a more modest rendering of both upper- and lowercase, he has typed “by Richard McCann.”

Yes, I was the son who was named for him. I was the one who became a writer.

I was eleven when he died.

After that, I’m not sure what I felt toward him, if in fact I ever knew before.

The summer before his death, at our family fishing camp in Pennsylvania, I could see his disappointment at my squeamishness each time I asked him to bait my hook with the night crawlers I hated to touch. By then, he’d already begun telling me not to play so much with girls. Once, when he overheard me gossiping with a classmate on the telephone, he told me, “You don’t need to be a Chatty Cathy.”

I know I missed him after his death. Sometimes, for instance, I’d find myself suddenly standing in silence before the opened door of the hall closet, staring at his army uniform, which my mother kept stored there, enshrouded in a plastic dry cleaner’s bag. But even though I could have never said it then, I also know that I sometimes felt relieved to be no longer subject to what I took to be his scrutiny. Over time, perhaps in guilt, as a response to my relief, or perhaps because I had somehow imagined without even knowing it that he had betrayed me by having died, I began to recall him only in fragments, as an accumulation of his tastes and habits. I remembered that he liked catsup sandwiches. I remembered how he looked standing in the middle of Pine Creek in his rubber waders, casting his line for brown trout. I remembered that, the opposite of my mother, he preferred Ford over Chevrolet.

Each Sunday for almost five years after my father’s death, until my mother remarried, my mother, brother, and I drove to Arlington National Cemetery, where my father was buried on a hill just below the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, to kneel before his headstone and recite a half-dozen Hail Mary’s and the Lord’s Prayer. Afterward, we drove to the Hot Shoppes restaurant, where I always ordered the fruit cocktail for my appetizer, because I felt it to be a sophisticated choice, the kind I imagined myself making in the years to come, after I moved away and my life became my own.

I’m not sure how it happened, then, that I was the one to come into possession of my father’s novel. I remember that I had it with me in my freshman dorm at college, in that rundown double room I shared with Mike Cregan, a sophomore who was somehow five years older than I and who talked about almost nothing but the German carnival sideshow he claimed to have visited the previous summer, at which he’d paid an extra five marks to see a blonde Fräulein getting fucked by a donkey. Mike once told me that he had two wishes: to marry a nice girl he could take home to Connecticut, and to revisit that carnival sideshow, although I don’t know if meant to realize them in that order.

In retrospect, I suspect that I simply asked my mother for my father’s novel. By my freshman year, I’d received in response to an aptitude test that I had sent in to the Famous Writers School what I believed to be an encouraging personal letter, given that it seemed to have been hand-signed by Bennett Cerf himself. By then, I’d started to tell people that I was a writer, even though I had written almost nothing except for a few haiku leftover from high school. It was then, I think, that I came upon the idea of completing my father’s novel.

I’m not sure why or how I conceived of doing this. I do remember, however, announcing the plan to my mother, who granted me her approval and reminded me, as she often felt the need to do, that my father had really loved me. I remember that my plan seemed to me almost a practical decision, as if I’d figured out that if I were going to be a writer, I’d be smart to join the family business, where I’d already had a head start, although, in retrospect, it’s clear that writing was not my family business and that my motives were murkier and more complex than I then knew. What was I doing? Was I attempting to negotiate between the actual grief that I must have felt after my father’s death and the guilty conscience I had for having sometimes wished, when he was alive, that I could escape his baffled and critical gaze, as if I’d somehow contributed to his dying by not having been the sort of son he surely wanted? I knew he would not have appreciated the poster that I’d hung over my dorm room bed, a larger-than-life photo of Bette Davis in All About Eve. I knew he would have continued to worry about the kind of boy I seemed unable to stop myself from becoming, a boy whose anxious laughter was too sudden and too shrill, a boy who could not keep his hands still while he was talking. Was I planning to complete his novel as some kind of atonement? Was I hoping that by entering his words, I might somehow come to know him?

How could I have understood myself then? I was seventeen. Only six years had passed between my father’s sudden death and my going off to college—a drop in the bucket, as they say, at least from my perspective now. I am sixty-one years old. I have now lived more than a decade longer than my father did.

Whatever my motives, here’s what happened, at least as I now recall it: one night that fall semester, I sat at my battered dorm room desk, reading the novel’s opening pages, a notepad and a pencil at the ready beneath my gooseneck study lamp, should I have wished to start writing. Mike sat opposite, on the edge of his bed, clipping his toenails.

There was a protagonist, Johnnie Kirwin, a good but mischievous boy, an eighth-grader, whom my father had clearly based on himself. There was a setting, Bishop, Pennsylvania, an almost exact facsimile of Patton, Pennsylvania, population 2,023, the coal mining town where my father had grown up, its shingled houses covered with coal soot, its empty lots piled with cast-off slag and smoldering boney. There was a scene of local miners parading on John Mitchell Day, honoring the president of the United Mine Workers Association who had been orphaned at six and then sent down into the mines to work. There was a town tramp, Vera, who loitered, smoking a Fatima cigarette, almost nightly beneath the lighted marquee of the Majestic Theater. I took note when I got to the Majestic. Once, while visiting family in Patton, my father had taken my brother and me to the Majestic Theater to see Elvis in Blue Hawaii.

But pretty soon I felt bored, thumbing through pages. It was the same boredom that I’d felt as a child when my brother and I were sent to Patton for two weeks each summer to stay with our uncle Pete and aunt Martha. Each day, after they left for work, we wandered their old house, trying to figure what to make of it, with its coal cellar, its steep back staircase that led only to a closet, and its dark, curtained rooms with their heavy window shades pulled down and their walls lined with blue-hued Maxfield Parrish prints and old family photos and framed religious mottos—WHAT IS HOME WITHOUT A MOTHER, TO THY CROSS I CLING, LOOK UNTO ME. At night, after supper, our Uncle Pete drove us to get ice creams at different Howard Johnson’s along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, some more than fifty miles away.

Bored by the novel, I thought that maybe I needed to take a break from reading it. I put the pages back into the folder in which my father had kept them. I leaned back in my chair and smoked a few Viceroys. Then I looked through a jar of loose change until I found enough coins to go downstairs and buy a Coke and a Clark Bar. After I ate the Clark Bar, I went outside and sat on the stoop to drink the Coke.

By the time I went back upstairs, Mike had gone to bed and turned the lights out. He liked always to be the first in line at the cafeteria for breakfast. I don’t remember what I did after that. Possibly, I made my way across the room through the dark to put my father’s novel in a drawer and straighten up my desk. Possibly, I just went straight to bed.

But I do recall that I did not look at my father’s novel again, not that night, not that year—and not for more than forty years. I think I gave it back to my mother. Later, I think, she gave it back to me. And then for a long time it became one of those things, a memento mori, that periodically rises from a cardboard box that one is either packing or unpacking for a move.

And then I came across his unfinished novel a year or two ago, while I was packing up my own papers—literary manuscripts, photographs, ephemera—to ship to the university library that now houses them. At the last minute, I packed the original of my father’s novel among the works that I’d written. What else to do with it? I thought. I have no children.

After the special collections librarian assigned to the task had processed and catalogued everything—13.2 linear feet, in sixteen boxes—the director of libraries invited me to speak at the opening of what was now termed the Richard McCann Archive—my father’s name as well as mine, I kept thinking, because by then there was no one left alive, except for my oldest brother, who remembered that that name had once belonged to my father before it ever belonged also to me.

For the day of the opening, the library arranged an exhibit of items from my papers in glass tabletop display cases around the lobby. In one, there were multiple drafts of the first story I’d ever published, along with a few family keepsakes that I’d described in stories, like my mother’s silver brush and comb set and my great-grandmother’s black mantilla. In another, on the far side of the lobby, there was a stack of yellowing pages bound together with a black banker’s clip.

I went over to examine it. There it was:  A NOVEL, by Richard McCann.

A woman was standing beside me, also peering into the case.

“Did you write that?” she asked. When I looked at her, I saw she was wearing the kind of matronly dress my mother used to call a “D.A.R. Bemberg sheer”—something stern yet flowery. She was holding a cocktail napkin into which she’d folded some cheese and crackers, part of the library’s celebratory repast.

“No,” I said. “My father did.”

She looked back down into the display case.

I didn’t know what else to say, though for a moment I wanted to tell her how my father had sometimes sat in the living room after dinner, pecking out an occasional paragraph on his Underwood while watching Gunsmoke and Perry Mason.

“Oh, I see,” said the woman. “Your father was a writer, too.”

Yes, I thought to say. Yes, my father was a writer, too.

But was that really true?  After all, hadn’t he really been just a hobbyist—no different from a Sunday painter, say, or a man seated at an upright piano, pounding out “Chopsticks”?  That’s how I’d come to describe him to myself over the years. Occasionally, I’d find myself telling some friend or other about my father’s unpublished novel—his “great American novel,” as he’d once described it—and the friend would invariably ask, “So, tell me—is it any good?”

“No,” I’d say, “it isn’t good.” I’d go on to explain that it was sentimental, that he hadn’t reached too far into his own material and hadn’t imagined his characters—his mother and father, for instance—as distinctive or possessing complexity. Sometimes, I’d add that I could have shown him how to fix it—if he’d lived, that is.

Why did I feel the need to speak of him like this—to disparage what he loved and to repudiate whatever bond we had between us, no matter how great or small?  Was I attempting to settle some old score, to triumph over his anxious disapproval of what he regarded as my girlishness?  Was this my way of punishing him for his having died?

The woman walked away from the display case without an answer. When I closed my eyes, standing there, I could still picture my father in our old living room, seated before the typewriter, in his faded fishing shorts, white T-shirt, and cotton slippers. He always changed out of his army uniform the second he got home from work. He said he felt more like himself that way.

He is rolling a piece of blank white paper into the platen, backed with the four sheets of carbon paper between four sheets of onionskin. Once he has the paper straight along the page guide, he looks up for a bit at the Dumont in the corner—maybe it’s Wagon Train this time, or maybe Have Gun Will Travel. When the commercial comes on, he looks back down at the typewriter keys and pecks out a word, which he then regards:  Is that the right one?  Is there one that’s better?  He is resuscitating what he recalls of the coal mining town where he grew up. I know that place. Sometimes he took my brother and me along with him on his car trips to visit relatives who’d stayed behind. Once, he drove us past a few sites of his childhood, which my brother and I regarded in silence:  a culvert by the tracks, where he played after school with other boys; the McCrory’s 5 & 10¢ Store, from which he was occasionally allowed to buy some necessity, like galoshes; the railroad yard where he first went to work at thirteen, sweeping out the locomotives.

Who is this man I now recall sitting at night in his small suburban living room, the picture window at his back, periodically pausing to light a Pall Mall or sip from his beer glass before returning to his work, setting down on paper what he needs most to remember from what will prove to be his not-long life?  He types. He erases. He draws on his cigarette. He types. This man was my father. He was Pop.

I opened my eyes and, for a moment, when I looked back down into the display case, I felt a sharp and even almost extravagant pride for my father and his unfinished novel, as if somehow I’d just published it.

Yes, he was a writer, whether he succeeded or not.

At least that’s how I felt that day, standing in the library.

It’s not what I felt back when I was a freshman in college, when I decided to put my father’s novel aside and return it to my mother.

As soon as I abandoned my father’s novel, I hatched a new scheme for becoming a writer:  I would write stories for True Confessions and Real Story, since I’d heard that confessions magazines were always looking for new talent and that they paid two cents a word. All of my stories were always told from the point of a view of a woman, of course, and they all followed the familiar formula: first sin, then suffer, then repent. I wrote “I Hitchhiked through Hell” and “I Can’t Forgive My Sister.” I wrote “My Husband Is a Bigamist” and “I Can’t Walk down the Aisle to the Altar.” I sent each one out to a magazine as soon as I completed it. None was ever published.

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