Pummeling the Dead – Robert Fromberg
November 23, 2022
I couldn’t write this before, but I can now. My dad has been dead for 45 years, but my brother Paul was still alive until a few weeks ago. I suppose I could have written this and not shown it to anyone, but somehow writing it would have put the story of Paul and Dad into the air currents, which in my mind could have carried the story to Paul, and one day he would have felt sad or hurt and not known why, and the cause would have been this story finding him through the air.
But Paul is dead now. He died in his sleep, or at least in bed. I don’t know for sure that he was asleep. Paul’s best friend had the landlord unlock Paul’s door, and they found Paul curled up under the covers, which suggests he was asleep. I suppose it would have been me finding him if, when Paul fled his wife, he had chosen to stay with me, 15 miles away, instead of traveling 2,188 miles by bus to Arcata, California, to stay with a stranger he met online. That was a pretty typical Paul decision.
Which isn’t to say he stayed in Arcata. About a year later, he fled the stranger he had gone to stay with. He spent the night hiding in the woods and then took a bus to Reno, and eventually settled in South Lake Tahoe, California, near his boyhood friend, the one who found him dead.
We don’t know how he died. If I had written this story before Paul died, I would have thought that the story had reached him somehow, through the air, and that he had died of, I don’t know, maybe shame or sadness or just resignation. Maybe I didn’t have to write the story. I mean, am I so powerful that the mere act of my writing can influence life or death? I think we know the answer to that. Maybe Paul just remembered the event on his own, without any help from my unimportant fingers on my unimportant keyboard writing an unimportant story. Maybe Paul remembered the story while in bed that night, and dying seemed like a reasonable response. It would have to me. I would have already died a million times if that story had happened to me.
Dad was easygoing. Lighthearted. I never saw him hurry. He made humorous observations. He was friendly. He was these things not for the fairly typical male reason of saying with his mannerisms, “Hey everyone, look at me, being so easygoing and lighthearted and unhurried and humorous and friendly.” The signature move of such a male is to look at the nametag on the shirt of a fast-food-establishment employee and call that person by name. Tacky, condescending, and gross, and something my dad would never do.
My dad’s ease was especially remarkable, to me, because of his height, or perhaps I should say lack of height. He was 5 foot five. I, too, was short for my cohort, and was continuously cognizant of the fact. However, Dad seemed genuinely not to care.
When Dad and I went around town, particularly to the university where he taught painting, people seemed happy to see him. “Jerry!” they would exclaim. (Sometimes Dad didn’t answer back with the person’s name, and I would know he had forgotten the name; it was a little joke between the two of us.) Dad didn’t exactly have friends, he never went out to dinner or for drinks with anyone, as later in my life I learned that friends did, but a lot of people seemed to know him, and they clearly liked him, and he smiled a lot.
I don’t know how he managed that. He was an abstract expressionist painter from New York, and the ones I learned about later in college—painters who preceded Dad on the scene by only about ten years—mostly seemed to writhe in angst and die violent deaths at a young age, whereas Dad would work on a painting for a couple of hours and then play a little golf. And when he did die, although it was at a young age like many of his abstract expressionist predecessors, it was from a decidedly pedestrian heart attack for the decidedly pedestrian reason of shoveling snow from our driveway in Peoria, Illinois.
Another factor what would seem to, but apparently did not, mitigate Dad’s good cheer was his wife, my mother, who was far more stereotypical than Dad in that she was a painter who was also a tortured alcoholic sleeping-pill addict.
Another factor that would have made a different dad anything but lighthearted was my younger brother, Steve, a hyperactive (and I mean very hyperactive—he never stopped running), barely verbal, autistic kid. (Remember, this was the 1960s and 1970s, when autism was barely known, so in addition to his uncontrollable behavior was a mystery of what the hell caused him to be the way he was and what to do about it.)
Even the fact that we lived in Peoria, Illinois, rather than his beloved New York City was a circumstance that would devastate another person, but that Dad, after he got over having to watch the Peoria Pacers rather than the New York Yankees, seemed to accept gracefully.
With one exception, Dad went about his art-making and his teaching and his proffering of humorous remarks and his saying pleasant hellos to people who weren’t quite his friends.
You could only see the exception only occasionally, and only if you were watchful. The one thing that, from time to time, caused a cloud to cross Dad’s sunny countenance was my older brother, Paul.
There, I said it. I didn’t mean to say it that baldly, but it’s done now.
You know how two people who are related—siblings, or parent and child—may share similar features, but on one those features are attractive and on the other the same features look awkward, perhaps even ugly? Well, that was the case with my dad and older brother—not their physical appearance, but their emotional and behavioral proclivities. Where Dad was easygoing, Paul was lethargic; where Dad was witty, Paul was silly; where Dad was good-natured, Paul was insipid. In short, for each of Dad’s attractive tendencies, Paul was the undesirable, if innocent twin.
Paul’s legend was captured in an anecdote about him told to me when I was perhaps 15 by my mother, who was notorious—to me, that is—for telling me things she shouldn’t have told me. “Even when Paul was a toddler, he didn’t have any initiative. I would send him into the backyard with an apple, hoping that would keep him outside playing for a while, and as soon as he was finished with the apple, he’d be back at the door with the apple core in his hand, asking to come back inside.”
A few years later, not long before she died, Mom would see Paul in his usual position, stretched out on the couch reading the paper, and say to me, “Paul has a good heart,” which meant two things: One, that in contrast to me, Paul was benign, and two, as I discovered the phrase was used when I moved to the South with Steve a few years later, Paul was, in addition to being benign, not too bright. Which seemed a rather nasty thing to say with Paul just a few feet away, but Mom was drunk most of the time at that point, and she said it with affection in her tone.
Did I, a few paragraphs back, characterize Paul’s behavior as “innocent”? Perhaps, as the kids say these days, not so much. Or at least, not in every circumstance. In the category of “innocent,” I would put Paul’s annual school pictures, in which he consistently had a rather dopey expression on his face. In the category of not so innocent, I would put Paul’s interactions with our autistic younger brother.
One thing our brother Steve loved to do was to bend down and gaze along the edge of a tabletop or bookshelf. These days, an informed approach to this autistic behavior might be to ignore it. After all, at least when he was looking at edges he wasn’t running from room to room. But, understandably, our position was to try to encourage behaviors that seemed to us to be appropriate, and when Steve was going something we viewed as inappropriate, we tried to redirect him.
Paul’s approach was a bit different. Paul would see Steve doing, well, anything, and Paul would say, “Hey, Steve!” Then Paul would lean over and eye a tabletop or bookshelf. “Hey look, Steve,” Paul would say, “I’m looking at edges!” And Steve would look uncomfortable, as though he didn’t know exactly what to do, but usually would find an edge and start looking at it.
If Dad were around, he would say Paul’s name, his New York accent making it sound like two syllables, “Poo-awl,” his enunciation carrying not just annoyance, but also an unarticulated scorn that, in words, might come out, “Why would you do something like that?”
Steve hated whistling. Anytime he heard someone whistling, he would cover his ears and shout, “Agghhh!” and run away. Later, as he learned to talk, he would shout, almost as one word, “Please don’t whistle!” Inside the house, occasionally my easygoing dad would forget the prohibition and begin to whistle one of his favorite tunes, “A Bicycle Built for Two” or “Sidewalks of New York.” Steve would clap his hands over his ears and howl, and Dad would stop. Outside the house, say, at the grocery store, it was much trickier when someone started to whistle a tune and Steve started to howl and run. We couldn’t go up to a fellow shopper browsing the canned fruits and say, “Would you stop whistling?” (Although, seriously, wouldn’t we all love to muzzle public whistlers? As usual, Steve’s instincts weren’t wrong as much as socially unacceptable, not unlike the aesthetic instincts of Dad’s abstract expressionist heroes.)
Paul’s approach to Steve’s sensitivity to whistling was similar to how he approached Steve’s edge-looking, except this time he was playing for a rise. “Hey Steve,” Paul would say, “I’m going to whistle!” And Steve would cover his ears and say, “Pleasedon’twhistle!”
Dad’s response would be to add a third syllable to Paul’s name, making it “Poo-aw-all!” This time his tone carried some anger and the suggestion, to my ears, at least, that what Dad wanted to say was, “Only a stupid person like you would do a thing like that.”
Another of Steve’s characteristics was mimicry. After Steve began to talk a bit more, we found that he would repeat what was said to him in exactly the words and tone of the source. I might say, “I can’t wait to go on vacation!” Steve would respond, “I can’t wait to go on vacation!” Steve’s mimicry extended to his favorite TV show, which was “Sesame Street.” With slurred pronunciation that suggested to me that he didn’t understand all the words, along with hand gestures, Steve would recreate scenes of the show’s puppets: mischievous Ernie driving stick-in-the-mud Bert to distraction, Cookie Monster demanding and then devouring yet another plate of cookies, and so on.
Paul seemed to enjoy first copying Steve and then initiating the routines, with Steve joining in, which would escalate into Steve starting to run from room to room.
Dad’s reaction would be a tightlipped but brief glare. You had to be watching to see it.
One month in 1970, Mad magazine—Paul’s favorite reading material—released a special feature entitled “Reality Street,” in which the characters and events on “Sesame Street” were depicted as stereotypes of a gritty, poor, urban environment. As an example, the show’s theme song, which began, “Sunny day/Sweepin’ the clouds away/On my way to where the air is sweet…” became (I had to look this up) “Crummy day/Smoggy skies charcoal gray/On my way to where the bullies meet…”
One day in the car, facilitated by Steve’s mimicry, Paul was teaching Steve the Mad magazine version of the song. Hearing those words, “Crummy day/Smoggy skies charcoal gray,” coming from Steve’s mouth made me want to throw up. Paul laughed with glee. Dad, driving, said, “Paul” (his not elongating the name signaled, to me, at least, a new level of seriousness), “what you’re doing is as stupid as teaching a mynah bird to say dirty words. Your brother is not a bird and he’s not there for your personal amusement. Try teaching him something helpful.”
In a way, Dad was speaking my thoughts. In another way, I felt sorry for Paul. In the back seat of our station wagon with my two brothers, I saw the expression on Paul’s face when Dad’s words landed. Paul’s expression was as much confusion as chagrin. Paul was just a goofy, not overly bright kid doing what a goofy, not overly bright kid would do. The expression on Paul’s face said, “How am I supposed to know ahead of time when I’m doing something stupid and when I’m not?”
It was a fair, if unarticulated, question. I knew. Mom knew, Dad knew. But that didn’t mean that Paul would know. What Paul did know was his confusion in the face of his family.
Paul and I palled around quite a bit as young kids. We played catch. We played basketball. We went on walks in the woods. We built snow forts. We pretended to be the detectives from the movie The French Connection. One summer day, Paul and I decided to ride our bikes farther away than we ever had—to a park near some woods on the other side of town. The first attraction, after we arrived, was a short, wooden-slatted bridge over a creek. We walked our bikes to the mid-point of the bridge, leaned our bikes against the railing on one side, and leaned ourselves against the railing on the other side.
What is it about kids and creeks that rocks need to be thrown by one into the other? Paul and I walked the few steps across the bridge and each collected a handful of rocks from the ground and returned to our spot at the bridge railing, close side by side, Paul to the left of me, that is to say, Paul’s right arm, his throwing arm, near my left side.
The goals were two: distance and splash, with the calculus that a smaller rock could achieve a greater distance, while a larger rock could achieve a bigger splash.
Distance was the more attractive goal for me, and my first rock, small, traveled a decent way and made a tiny splash.
Paul’s first rock, perhaps three times the size of mine, traveled almost as far, due to his superior size, and made far more noticeable splash.
Paul released a grunt of appreciation and then a grunt of intention. He ran to the end of the bridge, dropped his original handful of rocks, and started hunting for others. Obeying my own ambitions, I turned back to the water and threw another rock hard enough that my shoulder hurt.
Paul returned to my side, holding in his right hand an impressively dimensioned rock, or perhaps a piece of concrete. Saying something to the effect of , “Now this will make a splash,” he turned toward the creek and began the motions for an overhand throw.
I, too, turned toward the water in anticipation of the sure-to-be-impressive splash, so I didn’t actually see Paul throw the stone.
My next sensation was that my vision was gone, or at any rate had gone from seeing a clear, sunny sky to seeing a choppy grey, and that my balance was gone, or at any rate needed some rapid attention that I was unable to provide.
My next sensation was seeing Paul over me, an expression on his face of some combination of concern, fear, and witlessness. The crown of my head registered pain. I reached up, touched it, felt more pain, looked at my fingers, and saw a greater quantity of blood than I had seen before in my accident-prone past. More blood was on the wooden planks of the bridge beside my outstretched legs.
Knowing an emergency when we saw one, Paul and I looked around for help. My memory is blurry here, but I know we ended up in a small house directly across the road from the park, where a woman a fair amount older than my mother said she had had worse-injured kids from the park at her front door. Dad was called, and, to certify the event as a calamity, I was taken to the hospital for two or three stitches.
A veteran of many a boyhood injury on the streets of New York in the 1930s—I loved to look at the scar on my dad’s leg that was the result, he said, of kneeling in broken glass in an alley during some adventure with his friends—Dad negotiated the calamity with efficiency and concern, but no apparent alarm or anger.
Back home, after dinner, for some reason, Dad, Paul, and I stood in our back yard. The sun was past the horizon. Perhaps it was the yard itself, the scene of many baseball catches and games, that moved Dad’s mind in the direction his words displayed.
“That was a stupid thing to do,” Dad said, looking at Paul, his volume rising with each syllable, using that word, “stupid,” the word I always sensed was just under the surface whenever Dad looked at Paul.
“It’s the way you throw,” Dad continued. “I’ve told you before. You never look where you’re throwing.” He strode two steps forward, picked up a baseball from the grass, turned to face us, looking at Paul, and assumed a throwing position. “You throw like this.” He looked up and to one side. He went through a pitching motion that in another situation might have been comic but here was taunting and bitter, ending with Dad launching the ball straight down into the ground. “You throw like an oaf,” he concluded.
Even as I saw the way that word registered on Paul’s face, blank with pain, I admired, as I often did, Dad’s use of a word that I found beautifully evocative, that I never heard among my friends, and that I assumed had been common during his New York childhood.
I was surprised to learn that Dad put so much emphasis on Paul’s ability to throw correctly, and I momentarily gave thanks that my own throwing form evidently met the threshold of non-oafishness. Although Dad was correct about the way Paul threw, I thought that Paul was getting a bad rap in this case. I was pretty sure that the big rock had simply dropped from Paul’s grasp when he was at the top of his motion, that is, hovering in the air over my head.
Still, if Dad’s criticism was in a narrow sense misdirected, in a larger sense it was true. In his movements, Paul wasn’t so much awkward as chronically indecisive. He seemed to question every motion he made before and even while he was making it. He might have beat me in every basketball game we played in the neighbor’s driveway, but that was because he was taller and stronger. I knew well that my movements were far more crisp and confident than his, and that given time, I would be a better ballplayer. And I knew that I would be better than Paul at pretty much everything else, while Paul throughout his life would be the guy who accidentally dropped a big rock on his little brother’s head. And the one person who could puncture our dad’s equanimity.
I want to be fair. Kids have accidents. I was pretty reckless; I could have been the one to hit Paul in the head with a rock. And as for Paul’s behavior with Steve, well, interacting with Steve takes a lot of subtlety. You want to affirm the things that interest him, while modeling the behavior you want from him. That’s a lot of nuance for a kid. I could imagine some of my classmates behaving the same way toward Steve that Paul did. Classmates, not friends.
Even as I tried to throw Paul this rope of understanding, tried to see his manner as normal and his behavior as harmless if artless, I saw in him, even back then, something not so innocuous, something beyond distasteful, that was borne out in later years.
A couple of years after Dad died, when Mom was too drunk and sick to look after Steve, he moved into my basement apartment a couple of blocks away from our house. At the time, I was 20 years old, and Paul was 22. Once Mom entered the hospital and it became clear she wouldn’t return, Paul asked if Steve could spend some nights with him. As much as I wanted a break from Steve, I was concerned whether Paul was up to the task. My desire for respite and my reluctance to humiliate Paul with a younger brother’s paternalism won out, and I said okay, we could try it for one night and see how it went.
Paul showed up an hour late to pick up Steve from my apartment. I gave Paul the bag I had packed with Steve’s things, and I stressed that at nine o’clock the next morning Steve needed to be dropped off near the tennis courts at the local park, where he would meet a group from the local chapter of what was then called the Association for Retarded Citizens. The group had activities planned until three in the afternoon, when I would pick Steve up.
When I arrived that afternoon, I parked and walked over to the group. One of the supervisors took me aside and let me know that Steve had arrived almost an hour late. At that point, the group had been up the hill walking in the woods. When Steve found them, he was alone and frantic, and the person said, it was good Steve found them when he did because the group was almost ready to take the van to the zoo, which would have left Steve alone for hours.
I still have nightmares about Steve, sweaty and overwrought, wandering in the woods.
Also not innocuous was the racism that seemed to leak out of Paul under the guise of humor. That racism certainly wasn’t borne of our liberal, social-justice-minded parents, particularly as Paul and I watched them react to the racial upheaval of the 1960s during our early childhood. Paul took the racial stereotypes of that Reality Street feature from Mad magazine, and rather than abandoning them when his friends outgrew Mad magazine, continued to ride them through his childhood and young adulthood and adulthood and right up to the days before his death, never once realizing that it is always hateful for a white person to make fun of a Black person, or for any person in a position of privilege to parody someone who is not.
Another example: Paul’s college rock band was called The Blind Boys.
At about the same time, Paul created a character called Potbelly, an obese Black blues musician “from Two Shacks, Mississippi,” whom Paul depicted in a crude cartoon. Paul wrote, performed, and recorded parody songs ostensibly sung by Potbelly that employed stereotypical rural, Southern, Black vernacular and enunciation with titles like “My Fat Ass Itches.” Paul continued to circulate and amplify this character for the rest of his life.
Paul would comment on social media using locutions like, “I wants mah daddy’s rekkids” and “gonna git got.” He was suspended from Facebook for hate speech after quoting lines from a favorite movie, defending himself after this punishment by saying the words were from “a well-known Hollywood movie,” as though that meant in any context the words were appropriate.
At my wedding shower, Paul told a joke to a friend of mine that involved a Black woman naming her baby Sheboygan, not knowing that this was the name of a town in Wisconsin. My friend did not laugh. Paul said, “C’mon, it’s funny.” My friend said, “Not if you’re Black.” I apologized to my friend, who said, “That’s OK. I don’t expect any better from anyone I meet, even if he is your brother.”
Which is just the point. Perhaps Paul was no better than anyone else. Perhaps he just wasn’t bright enough to pick up the nuance of dealing with our autistic brother. Perhaps he overslept like any 22-year-old might and, also like any 22-year-old, did not check to make sure that Steve had met his group before driving off. Perhaps Paul wasn’t savvy enough to ensure his sense of humor would mature as he got older and times changed. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect more from Paul, just because he was my brother. Perhaps it was OK that my brother Paul was a little dopey, but no dopier than a lot of other people.
But I had to pick up the slack. I took care of Steve for 45 years between my parents’ death and Paul’s death the other week, and during that entire time Paul didn’t do shit to help. He didn’t contribute any money. He didn’t take Steve on vacation so I could have a break. He didn’t even call Steve on the telephone except on his birthday.
But Paul had other things to do. He was remarkably industrious. He taught himself to be a pretty good blues guitarist. He made a website about himself and his music. He shared memes on the internet. He played at open mics. He watched lots of old comedy shows on TV. Clearly, he was much too busy to call his orphaned autistic brother once each week or to reflect on why he believed it was necessary to make jokes about Black people.
Although relatively little of this background had actually transpired at the time of the encounter between my dad and Paul that I promised to tell, enough signs were present that, if my dad had spent a couple of hours imaging Paul at age 20, age 40, and age 60, he would have had little trouble coming up with this future.
At the time, however, Paul was about 16, which would put Dad at 48. Paul was as slump-shouldered, scraggly haired, and uncommunicative, and as buried in his music and television, as any teenage boy, but somehow that felt, even to me at age 14, less rebellion than dullness, and less like a phase than a destination.
In one way, however, Paul’s teenage flatness showed an occasional point: For a period of a couple of months, Paul would regularly needle Dad.
This seemed to me to be a strange target. Dad was the exemplar of inoffensiveness. He was an engaged father, always up for a chat. Now, Mom, I would have understood. She was prickly and sarcastic. But why should Paul rouse himself from his torpor to pick on Dad?
Paul’s method of attack was en passant comments about Dad’s his hair and clothes, dismissive corrections to any normal misspeak that may have escaped Dad’s lips, and snide comments about Dad’s taste in food and music.
So what? Adolescents are antagonistic toward their parents; it’s a step in the process of separating. I wouldn’t make a big deal about it, I wouldn’t even mention it, if it weren’t for what happened next.
One day, I had just gotten off the phone, which was on a credenza in the dining room. The dining room opened into the living room, where I saw Paul walking past Dad. Paul paused, turned toward Dad, and said, “You smell bad.”
Dad smiled and said, “That’s what we used to call breaking wind.”
I had never heard that expression before, but figured it was Dad’s boyhood term for farting. Pretty cool term, I thought.
Paul, clearly and unsurprisingly not understanding, replied, “Well, take a shower.”
Our family was not touchy. Very few, if any, hugs or pats on the back. Any affection in our house was verbal. So when Dad reached for Paul, I was immediately alarmed.
Dad threw Paul to the carpet, something Dad could only accomplish through surprise and Paul’s ingrained passivity, because Paul by this time was the taller of the two. Dad fell onto the carpet beside Paul and began pelleting Paul’s back and shoulders and arms and anything else he happened to reach with almost comically infant-like punches, shouting as he punched, “Stop riding me! Stop riding me! Stop riding me!”
I had never seen my father lose his composure, much less have a tantrum. But here he was, dissolving into a frustrated child in front of me. And pummeling my brother Paul, whom he had never hit, never spanked, never threatened.
Paul was not suffering physically from Dad’s weak blows, but I could see him crumpling in another way. His face said that he knew he had overstepped, had done something horribly wrong, had gotten Dad’s goat but in going so reduced Dad to this humiliating display, had been the unwitting (but what are wits for?) cause of this nice, steady guy, our father, completely losing his moorings. Which, I saw in Paul’s face, translated into an understanding that went something like this: I’m stupid; I’m stupid and I’m bad.
I wasn’t angry at Dad. Not for hitting Paul, not for losing his cool, not for giving Paul a memory that he could never overcome. Dad’s reaction was an understandable and inevitable burst of the frustration caused by all that was Paul.
In the moment, I was sorry for what Paul was experiencing, a humiliation equal to if not greater than Dad’s. But I can’t deny feeling a kind of satisfaction. Paul was something the family had to drag along, and we already had enough to drag. We had a younger brother who never stopped running and barely spoke and for whom my parents had to fight to find education and services from an apathetic school system and local government. We had an alcoholic, pill-addicted mother, whom we knew would snap at some point. And we were artists living in fucking Peoria, Illinois, but were trying to make the best of it. It’s never a child’s role to be a parent or to carry a family. But we weren’t asking much of Paul, just to not make things worse, just to keep up, just to occasionally snap out of whatever fog he was in.
When Dad pummeled Paul, Dad did something to Paul, something damaging. But Paul also did something to Dad. He pushed my Dad over the edge, he forced my Dad to reveal what he—what all of us—tried so hard to hide: Paul was an annoyance.
Sitting here, Paul dead for just a few weeks, I also want to pummel him. Paul, you were my big brother, and until the day you died you were another little brother I had to support. Oh, I had to say, wow, that’s a really good song you recorded, oh, 64-year-old Paul, that job in the gift shop sounds wonderful.
Paul, our parents offered us the wonderful gift of discernment and kindness and empathy and taste, and you were too stupid to understand.
Paul, I seriously needed your help with Steve, and you did nothing. Paul, Steve needed to know he still had a family after Mom and Dad died, and you did nothing.
Unlike Dad, I never snapped. I never lost my composure. I never yelled at you. I never told you to shape up. I never expected you to be anything other than the rather dull, somewhat befuddled, person you were. Except that I did. I needed you to be something other than you were. Now, I wish you were alive and I was the one pummeling you. I wish we were rolling on the ground and I was punching and punching you, with the same infant-like punches that Dad used. Then I would stop. I would stand up. And I would try to figure out if I should comfort you or kick you or just walk away.