Independence Day

“Right.” Frank chuckled. “They’re oddballs. Meanwhile, Gordon is a college professor with a doctorate in anthropology, and his wife has a master’s degree in sociology. They’ve been all over the world.”

So— he has a doctorate,” my father said with a shrug. “What the hell does that mean?”

“It means he’s pretty damn smart. Where’s your doctorate?”

“It’s up your ass!”

Gordon often turned Frank on to new authors and lent him books. I had no idea what they were about, but I thought the titles were cool. What were Gulliver’s Travels and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn compared to Naked Lunch and Tropic of Cancer? Sometimes I would skim through their pages and read a paragraph here and there. I wanted to understand them, but most of the time the stuff went over my head.

My father was constantly on my back about reading. He’d frequently cram the importance of education down my throat, but I rarely saw him with a book in his hands. The extent of his “library” was the small bookcase next to his bed, which contained a few technical and religious books among yellowed and dog-eared back issues of Reader’s Digest.

I liked the idea of reading books because Frank and Connie were into them, but I didn’t enjoy reading itself. Every so often my father would treat me to one of his “reading lessons.” He would have me stand in front of his old reel-to-reel tape machine and record my voice as I read out loud from a schoolbook or one of Connie’s old Classic Comics, Black Beauty, or some other bullshit. It didn’t matter what I was reading; it felt like torture. I was self-conscious and labored over every sentence.

The more I struggled, the more heated he became. “Stand up straight and speak up!” he’d tell me. “When you read, you want to be comfortable. You’re reading a story. That’s all it is.” Every once in a while, he’d pull the book from my hands and read what I had just read, only he’d read it in an overblown, theatrical voice, as if auditioning for King Lear. Then he’d rewind the tape and play back both our renditions. “You hear the difference? Now that’s reading.”

Once my father sat me down on the couch and gave me a copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Frank’s latest borrowed book. “I want you to read this and tell me what you think it means,” he said, making it sound like some kind of IQ test.

I felt like I had a gun to my head. I distinctly remember the front cover of the book; it showed a group of pissed-off horses, cows, sheep, and chickens. They were all huddled together in the entrance of a barn—definitely not Old MacDonald’s spread. I read maybe four or five pages, and my eyelids grew heavy. About an hour later, my father woke me up and asked what the book was about. “I don’t know,” I mumbled. “Something about some angry animals?”

“What can I do?” He walked away, shaking his head. “I guess somebody’s gotta be the shoemaker.”


It was the Fourth of July, and my father had found a paperback copy of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World sitting on top of Frank’s dresser. Gordon had given it to Frank, and it had become one of his favorite books. He told Connie that Huxley was “a visionary way ahead of his time” and that he had a “crystal ball.” Gordon had written some words for my brother on the inside cover: For my buddy Francesco. Good luck on your journey! —Gordy.

That morning, my father asked me to help him hang an American flag outside our living room window, something he did every Independence Day. He was in a pissy mood, and when I yanked on the cord and pulled up the window blinds a little too fast, he wigged out.

“Easy with that! You’ll fray the goddamn cord.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

“What the hell’s the matter with you?” he said. “Can’t you see it’s a delicate instrument? You don’t just pull down hard on something like that. You take your time.” He lowered the blinds, then carefully raised them again, gripping the cord with his pinky extended, the same way he held his violin bow. “Easy … easy,” he said, his eyes following the blinds all the way to the top of the window casing. “I swear, I gotta tell you people everything.”

Our flag was fit for an aircraft carrier, the biggest in our apartment complex. After we hung it, he sent me to the deli for two six-packs of beer and a mountain of cold cuts. I knew he was getting ready to dig in for the day and tie on a load. When Frank came home later that afternoon, the old man was half-looped.

“Where the hella you been?” he asked.

“I was hanging out with Gordon,” Frank said. “He and his wife bought a new stereo.”

“Gordon, huh? Let me ask you a question. Is this your book?” He held up Brave New World as if it were a stash of drugs.

“Yeah, why?”

“Where did you get it?”

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John Califano