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Death Wish

A tour through my private Grand Guignol

Shalom Auslander
January 26, 2006

My parents have not yet had the decency to die. This makes my work difficult and slow. I am writing a memoir.

I have no choice. I am 35 and have recently published, and so it is the law. Some writers my age have not written their memoirs, but they are made of sturdier stuff, and have paid the ultimate price of never being heard from again, banished to the forgotten Fiction section of the bookstore (stand between the pastry case and the cream and sugar station, and look all the way to the back where it says “Clearance/Bathrooms;” just behind that is Fiction), their voices eerily absent from National Public Radio. “Whatever happened to K.?” someone asks, and he is met with an uncomfortable silence from the others around the table. Perhaps they know and are afraid to say. Perhaps they don’t know, and can only imagine. Perhaps they aren’t sure who K. is. Kaminsky? Katzenstein? Kasovitz? It is a question many have had, but few ever have the courage to ask: K. who, asshole?

I do not want my parents to die, but I would like them very much to be dead. For this I feel tremendous guilt, so I punish myself. The main way I do this is by imagining the unimaginably horrible. There isn’t a half-hour of the day that goes by without gruesome, graphic imaginings of death, suffering, and misery. All day long, a festival of ultra-short horror films plays in my mind, my own private Grand Guignol. Walking down the street, shopping for groceries, filling the truck with gas, it doesn’t matter. I imagine driving my one-year old son home from day care, passing an accident at the side of the road. It is my wife, lying dead in the twisted spider-like wreckage of her car. “That looks like Mommy’s….” I imagine finding my beloved dog Harley dead at the foot of the bed, and I hold her in my arms and brush the flies from her face. I carry her to her grave, where we tearfully bury her beneath a crudely built homemade marker, and though my wife and I endeavor to move on, the grief is too much for my other dog Duke, whom I find on the deck a few days later, dead of grief and a broken heart, dead on the sheepskin throw upon which Harley used to sleep. Or maybe my son is kidnapped. Or he is accidentally dropped on his head and suffers brain damage. Or he chokes to death. Or as we innocently play Peek-a-Boo, somewhere inside his head an inoperable tumor is slowly beginning to grow. I picture these things a dozen times an hour, maybe more, every hour of every day, and, if I wake in the night, I imagine them then, too. My son downstairs in his crib, not breathing. Or a stranger has just abducted him, crept out his bedroom window without a sound. I only think my wife is asleep beside me; really, she is dead. So I creep downstairs and check on my son. And I go back to bed and check for my wife’s breathing. If I’ve met you and liked you at all, I’ve probably imagined you mutilated. I met Tom Perrotta at a joint writing seminar in Brooklyn one evening. Afterwards we went out for pizza and beers. Nice guy. Let me use his Metrocard. Died slowly beneath the wheels of a subway car after falling onto the tracks and being severed in two by an uptown N train.

You’re punishing yourself,” says my shrink.

“I know,” I answer.

“You haven’t done anything wrong,” he says.

“I know,” I answer.

I walk back to work, imagining the call from my shrink’s sobbing wife.

“He’s dead,” she says.

“I know,” I answer.

* * *

My wife and I moved to our house in the woods nearly ten years ago. We soon discovered that the property backs onto over a thousand acres of protected watershed forest, and there is rarely a day now that we don’t hike along the steep, abandoned logging roads and rocky, dried-up creeks that begin just outside our front door. And we talk. We talk about our work, our hopes, our fears. We resolve arguments, apologize if we’ve been wrong, draw closer together if we’ve been somehow drawn apart. The trees must be sick of us.

Here he goes again with the ‘mother’ talk.”

Christ, it’s better than his bitching about writing.

“I remember,” says the old oak, “when they used to get stoned and fuck out here.”

Today is the first day of hunting season. Off in the distance there is the sound of gunfire, and there is blood on the leaves of the forest floor. Naturally, one’s thoughts turn to the Holocaust. I picture hundreds of deer on a train platform being herded into cattle cars on their way to Auschwitz, the German soldiers roughly twisting their antlers to get them into the car. Harley disappears and returns three hills later with the front leg of a deer in her mouth. With all the raw meat lying around the forest, it is difficult to keep the dogs from running off.

Last year at this time, we were on this very trail, and my wife was having contractions. Not the best time for a hike, but we’d needed the talk. We were excited for the arrival of our son and the beginning of our new family, terrified of what it might mean to our old family. Would they try to reinsert themselves into our lives? Would they call? Would they phone? Would I have to kill them and go to prison for 10-to-15?

“Those really are the formative years,” said my wife. Duke ran off and returned with a ribcage. Harley followed and came back with a skull. Blood, death, skulls, corpses, baby, family. This was God’s idea of foreshadowing.

We had agonized for months over whether or not to circumcise our son. In the end we had the doctor do it the day after his birth. My family was not pleased.

“You have broken God’s Covenant with Abraham,” wrote my mother.

“You are the littlest piece of shit in the world,” wrote my sister.

I am on the fourth draft of the story in my memoirs that recounts this circumcision dilemma. It is called “The Foreskin that Broke the Camel’s Back.”

It’s funnier than it sounds.

* * *

The Fisher-Price Laugh & Learn Stride-to-Ride Learning Car my mother sent for my son’s birthday is sitting in the hallway, giving me shit.

“Doesn’t this proves she still loves you?” the Stride-to-Ride asks.

“It proves she has $29.99 plus shipping and handling,” I answer.

I have spent a long time trying to figure just how, within the schematic of my relationship with my family, the wires became so painfully crossed. The answer, after over a decade of therapy, is this: I don’t know.

This is progress.

My shrink would prefer for me to not care—together we strive toward indifference—but at least I have stopped needing to know, stopped endlessly examining the facts in the case of Auslander v. Auslander in search of permission for my pain. I smash my finger with a hammer and it hurts. Must I continue smashing my finger until I’ve come to a complete understanding of the complex neural pathways involved in the human brain’s registering of the sensation known as “pain,” or do I just stop smashing my fucking finger?

“But how could a son ignore his mother?” the Stride-to-Ride says.

“Listen,” I say, “you need to stop using these common nouns, like mother, son, family. Because this son leaving this family is not a tragedy; for this son, remaining with this family would be a tragedy.”

The Stride-to-Ride mutters something in Yiddish, and quotes a passage from the Torah. My son toddles over to it and presses a yellow button. Lights flash, and a song begins to play. “To Grandmother’s House We Go.”

Good one, God.

* * *

On Thanksgiving, I punished myself for the crime of not having dinner with the father I hate by inviting to dinner a woman I loathe. Wife of a friend. She got drunk, cursed, argued, and told me she wanted to shove her fist down my other friend’s throat. So I guess, in a way, I did have dinner with my father.

I began a story the next day about a man whose one-year-old baby begins to speak, only the language he uses is Yiddish. The kid points to his father one day and says, “Ta-tee.”

“What’d he say?” the man says to his wife.

“Didn’t sound like anything to me,” says the wife.

“I… I think he said ‘Ta-tee,’” says the man. He explains that that’s Yiddish for Daddy. He’s from a religious family, can’t stand the sound of it. She thinks he’s being crazy. He’s not sure, since Yiddish sounds like gibberish anyway. Later, the baby points to the jar of mashed peas.

“Essen,” he says.

“Eat,” his father says.

“Essen,” says the baby.

“EAT!” shouts the father. “EAT!”

The mother steps in, shocked at her husband’s behavior.

“Shouting is no way to get him to finish his dinner,” she says. She points to the jar of plums.

“Eat?” she says.

A bissel,” says the baby. A little.

I don’t know where the story’s going. But it makes me laugh, and it sure is a nice break from picturing my wife dying in a bear attack, or my son being accidentally shot by hunters, or poor Tom Perrotta bleeding to death in the subway, in his dying, twitching, mangled hand a Metrocard whose final ride he’d never get to take.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament and the novel Hope: A Tragedy. He is also a frequent contributor to This American Life.

Shalom Auslander is the author of Foreskin’s Lament, Hope: A Tragedy, and most recently Mother for Dinner. His new memoir, Fehwill be published this July. He writes The Fetal Position on Substack, so make that seven Nazis.

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