Ouija – Joshua Rodriguez
December 25, 2019
I want to be proud. I want it so badly sometimes I think there’s nothing else on this God forsaken planet I truly need. Every other desire pales in comparison. They’re all diminutive and lackluster. Proud of what? It’s hard to explain. It’s complicated and tangled. I wanna be proud of my country. I wanna be proud of my family. The name emblazoned in me like cattle a brand seared it into my flesh.
My dad and mom did their best I guess. I don’t wanna disparage them. Cast aspersions. Not too many anyway. Dad ran the family business and mom was an impressive drunk. Inveterate. I knew it even as a child. The uneven tonality of her slurred voice. Her imprecise movements. Like even reaching for her drink required practice. And I guess it did in a fucked up way.
“Your father’s a bad man,” she confided once. “He gets paid to do awful things.”
Her breath was hot against my ear. Redolent of menthol cigarettes and stale booze. That stench always seemed to loiter around her. Encompass her. Like a halo of despair. Like she was a fallen angel warped by exposure to enterprise and wealth and the consequent malice. Like it was a nuclear meltdown that left her mutated and mean in its aftermath. Just like everyone else in our vicinity. And I suppose I must have a little bit of that in me too.
“What does he do that’s awful?” I remember asking.
“He ruins lives.”
“How does he ruin lives?”
She stared at me. I think she realized I wouldn’t understand no matter how hard she tried to convey it. I was too young. She kissed me on the cheek instead. It was wet and sloppy. Like a dog licked my face. Even when she exhibited love or affection hopelessness belied it. Ever since I can remember. Like it was more for her than me. Then she lit a cigarette and went into the kitchen. Probably to fix herself another drink. That scent’s the reason I refuse to touch alcohol. After seeing the booze purloin my mother, I’m too scared to imbibe. It’s always been like playing with the Ouija board to me. Inviting in demons.
I found out later what dad did. The hurt he inflicted cavalierly. Callously. Like everyone else was disposable. But I didn’t find out from my parents. Mom evaded those questions and dad was unresponsive. Absent. I found out the way kids usually discover difficult things. Like pulling shards of shattered glass from your flesh one excruciating piece at a time. And mom was right. It’s utterly reprehensible. Felonious. But it’s a strange fucking aberration in this country that certain criminal characteristics are rewarded and celebrated if they’re undergirded by capital and reputation. Prestige.
I can’t walk down the street without wondering if I’m passing the debris and devastation left in the wake of relocating factories. “Outsourcing.” Families left out starving and exposed to the elements like stray fuckin’ dogs. Because dad did a whole lot of that in his tenure as a Corporate Scumbag. But somehow he absolved himself each night before he slept. I heard it through the walls. Him snoring all night then waking up well-rested and unperturbed. Like everything he did was morally admissible. Because of our family name and what we achieved through the unmitigated degradation of others.
“We’re an American institution, son,” my dad said regularly. “We’re a beacon to people. When they hear our name, they think of the tenets this country was founded on. We’re the American dream. The embodiment of unassailable American ideals.”
When I was first inundated with these strange convictions, I felt proud. I was just a boy. It was hard not to get carried away. I was instilled with an inflated sense of importance. Which was the point I guess. But the older I got the less sure I was of it. Because dad said it over and over like a mantra.
It eventually stopped conjuring pride and started sounding funny. Like how a word starts sounding wrong if you repeat it enough times. Each time you conceive it in your mouth it sounds more deviant and errant and mutated. Like they inter-pollinate and each new word emerges like inbred children. Eventually I got older and realized my name wasn’t a badge of honor; it was a demarcation of shame.
But dad wasn’t entirely wrong. Because that’s what we are in a way. The epitome of exploitation and absent accountability. What this country was built on. What we expunged from our collective memory because it complicates and impedes pride. Because each accomplishment is replete with corpses buried just beneath the surface. Muzzled corpses that whisper in muffled, incomprehensible voices.
Because it’s easier to mute our past when it tries to remind us of all the wrong we did. The wrong that propelled us to success. The bodies that lay the foundation of everything anyone’s ever accomplished in this God forsaken country. And when I got old enough to ask dad tough questions he just receded into himself. Like I wasn’t even there. Like I was just a fucking fly buzzing around his impenetrable head.
“What about the beginning of our family’s company, dad?” I’d ask.
“What about it?”
“We used slaves. How can we be proud of that? That’s a part of us now. And we’ve never addressed it. Like if we just ignore it it’ll stop being true.”
“That wasn’t us son.”
“And the factories we put in those neighborhoods?” I’d say. “The communities who couldn’t afford health care and were exposed to emissions and got sick? We didn’t give a damn. Didn’t even give them health insurance for working for us.”
“It’s not so simple.”
“The shit wages we paid minorities in the past just because we could?”
“The shit wages we pay now because people are desperate for work?”
“How can we be proud of ourselves when our history is a litany of atrocities? How can we be proud of ourselves if we’re too scared to confront and reconcile what we are because of what we did with who we are and who we wanna be? We’re only as good as the shit we do and the shit we don’t, you know.”
“And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, so tell me: what exactly do we have to be proud of?”
I guess I was mining my morally and spiritually despoiled father for answers that I needed to make sense of things. Because it’s hard to say I’m proud of being who I am without the connotation being I’m proud of my family’s past atrocities. Our past atrocities. The past is irrevocably enmeshed with the present. Our money and family name were made off the blood and lives of those we could exploit. And I guess there’s something fundamentally American about that. So I can’t call dad a liar. A scumbag? Sure. A piece of shit? Totally. But a liar? Not from what I remember. And sometimes to make myself feel better, I try to convince myself that we’re just cultural conscripts. We were drafted into this. We didn’t have a choice. But I know that’s just a bullshit attempt at consoling myself.
When dad croaked they offered me his job. The corporate head who made “difficult” decisions. Who ruined lives. The guy my mom hated but couldn’t bring herself to leave. Because it’s a luxury to live without scruples. I turned it down because I’m not a heartless son of a bitch. I went to college and got a degree in literature. Something far removed from the family business. I took out loans instead of tapping our family’s tainted money. To spare my conscience. Mom eventually drank herself to death.
I think the biggest tragedy of everything is that my name is still my name and my country is still my country and there’s no way to syphon out my family’s blood from my veins and replace it. I am who I am and I can’t change it and it breaks my heart a million different ways most days because I just want to love myself. Like anyone. It’s tricky. pride’s a conglomeration. Complicated and convoluted. And when you’re the product of unrelenting and unacknowledged cruelty, how can you honestly say you’re proud to be who you are? I can’t. Because I’m my father’s son in that way: I’m not a fucking liar.