A Sense of Accomplishment

by Denis Clifford ©2004

Thank god, Patrick thought, there were still men in the Adirondacks who could do things right, as the tree fell precisely in the narrow space between the main house and branches of a large pine.

The workers gone, Patrick began chopping the tree into firewood. He considered calling Kelly, the eldest of his seven children, who’d arrived two days ago from California for the family summer reunion. Ah, let him alone, Patrick decided, feeling a stab of something—rancor, disappointment, whatever; he wasn't one to interrupt a job to analyze what he felt. He'd assured Mary that he wouldn't fight with the kids this summer. Kelly, a dreamer, was perhaps the most reluctant of any of his kids to help with chores. When Kelly was young and told to do something, he had invariably responded "Right now?" Patrick joked that's what they should carve on Kelly's tombstone.

Patrick, who disdained motorized tools, grabbed an axe. Dressed in his favorite clothes, paint-spattered brown pants and a worn flannel shirt with the sleeves cut short, he resumed chopping. He loved swinging the axe, the muscles of his lean, strong arms clenching, tensing, then absorbing the satisfying crunch as he smashed the axe head in. Working rhythmically, he sweated in the sunlight filtering through the leaves of oaks and tall pines. After he'd split the tree into firewood, he took a moment's satisfaction in his work before the next task, storing the wood in the old cement ice shed behind the main house, sixty feet uphill.

Kelly, luxuriating in summer freedom, was noshing and reading the New York Times, when he heard his mother’s voice "Kelly," Mary called  "Honest Abe the woodsman needs your help."

"Sure, Mom," Kelly replied. He'd promised himself he'd cooperate with his father's inevitable calls for assistance. No fights this time.

Kelly thought that as Patrick aged he grew increasingly disturbed by the sight any of his children at rest. The day before, Kelly had been reading Humbolt's Gift on the boathouse porch, when Patrick stomped up and declared, "Hey, could you take the garbage up to the road?" Though Kelly saw no reason for urgency, he understood that Patrick meant immediately. "Sure, Dad," he'd responded.

Patrick announced that he'd stack the firewood in the shed, directing Kelly to carry it up. Kelly took the quickest route, following a narrow rain ditch by the side of the house, skirting the white and lime-green ground cover. Militantly cheerful, he whistled as he dropped another armful of wood on the narrow walk between the shed and the camp. "Better not carry so much," Patrick warned. "You could slip." Kelly guessed that Patrick worried that he'd trample the leafy ground cover, and preferred him to take the longer route, up the steps by the other side of the house. But Patrick would never say that. Several years before, Patrick and Katlin, his youngest, had debated which one would drive Kelly the fifty-one miles to the Utica airport the next morning. Kelly sat silently on the porch swing, wondering how the contest would turn out. "Oh no, Katlin, you're only up here for a week, I'm here all summer ..." Patrick soothed. "No Dad," Katlin countered, "you've already had to pick up Stuart and Elizabeth. I'll go." Back and forth they volleyed each nobly willing to sacrifice, until suddenly, on her turn, Katlin paused, looked directly at Patrick and declared, "I WANT to take him." "Oh well ... " Patrick conceded instantly, "If you want to take him. ... ah ... that's fine."

With the next load, Kelly took the same route up as before. "Now be careful!" Patrick warned again, while snarling inside; Kelly should know how to do it right without having to be told.

"I'll be O.K.," Kelly replied cheerfully. "I won't hurt anything."

Like a flash of lightening, black fury exploded through Patrick. "Look," he snapped, "there's no pathway on that side. If you go up that way, take smaller loads."

Kelly, stung, felt old furies rising in him. No, he checked himself. I am not going to play this game. Some years before, Patrick, a successful industrial consultant as well as a math professor at New Jersey’s Claremont College, was to give a speech in San Francisco. Kelly had picked him up at the airport. Driving to the City, Patrick asked Kelly how his work was going. Kelly answered that he was planning to leave Legal Services in the spring, didn't know what he was going to do next. Patrick asked if he ever thought of returning to New York and working for a law firm, a question he'd raised several times during the five years Kelly had been in California. "No," Kelly replied offhandedly, "I never think of it."

Feeling snubbed, Patrick suggested that it might be prudent to consider it. "What? Me in the corporate world?" Kelly laughed. "No, I think not."

"You think everybody who wears a tie's worthless, huh?" Patrick erupted. "Do you think I'm a failure?”

Fuck you, Kelly raged inside, then suddenly remembered: I don't have to do this. He'd defined it as the "red-hot poker theory of conversation." Somebody, so often, his father, laid down a verbal red-hot poker and baited him—I dare you to pick that up. Since his early teens, Kelly invariably had. All those fights with Patrick about Kelly’s "attitude," his "disrespect." "Don't talk to me in that tone of voice!" The two of them standing inches apart, both enraged, Patrick's fists clenched, Kelly's eyes glaring mutiny. But neither of them ever pushed to an irrevocable act of violence.

Nope, I ain't picking up the poker this time, Kelly knew, as Patrick trembled with anger in the car. "Sorry," Kelly said quietly, "I didn't mean that. Sorry if I sounded that way."

"Oh you didn't mean it," Patrick fumed. "You think you can tell me that it's all corrupt, after I work to send you to college and law school ... " He raged on. Except for an occasional muted apology, Kelly didn't respond. Deprived of an opponent, Patrick slowly calmed. They drove on in silence until Kelly felt it was safe to start exchanging news.

Gathering his next load of firewood, Kelly decided on accommodation and picked up a smaller armful. Enjoy the process, he reminded himself, slowing to look at the slate blue lake water, the light dappling through the pine trees. Go slow and ... Womp! He stumbled against a root, and a log jammed into his ribs. Yeah, yeah, fucking process indeed, he muttered.

Patrick, pleased that Kelly hadn't disobeyed him, resumed meticulously stacking wood in the shed, grabbing a log from the bunch Kelly had dumped, carrying it inside, wedging it carefully onto the pile, then starting over. Each time Kelly returned with another load, Patrick had completed his task and stood waiting. Returning downhill, Kelly thought in wonder at Patrick's constitution. Almost 70 now, and still smoked two packs of Camels a day, as he had for over 50 years. The man was a living violation of all the health creeds Kelly tried to live. Though Patrick drank coffee after dinner as well as breakfast, Mary reported that he slept as he always had, like the proverbial baby. He loved sweets, and daily consumed a breakfast of bacon and fried eggs. Six feet tall, he maintained his weight at l65 pounds and had a cholesterol count 80 points below Kelly's.

Dropping another armful of firewood, Kelly, recalling his intention to show Patrick affection, complimented "God, you do a lot of work to keep this place, don’t you."

"Yes," Patrick snapped, as if he were not being appreciated.

Why does he get so angry, Kelly shook his head as he returned for more wood. He doubted that he would ever be able to plumb his father's complexities, but still, he'd returned this summer, as in the past several summers, with the desire to know him better. No, it's more than desire, he reminded himself. It's need. I want to connect.

Mary was the family storyteller, but occasionally Patrick, soothed by martinis, had spoken about his life to Kelly as they sat together on the boathouse porch in the early evening. Patrick told melancholy stories: his childhood in Bismark, North Dakota, a hard place; his Irish father, sitting defeated on the front porch of his failing restaurant during the 20s, spinning forlorn dreams of new businesses while Patrick's stern mother somehow held the family together; Patrick, the fat kid with the athletic, popular older brother; Patrick’s struggles to get through Columbia during the Depression; a job as a Macy's executive trainee, assigned to tell employees they were fired the week before Christmas; quitting two weeks later, searching, and finally landing a teaching job at Claremont, having to hide the fact that he was a Catholic—they didn’t want any "Micks."

And out of all that, Kelly knew, came a man with a fierceness in him, with a passion to succeed, now listed in Who's Who. A pioneer of industrial Quality Control, he had a gift for translating statistics into functional product-testing realities that could be used by supervisors, managers, assembly-line workers. Kelly had seen him give a couple of talks. He was always affable, witty, under control.

Kelly had made a few attempts to explain his life to Patrick. Instinctively, he spoke mostly not of his joys, but his struggles: his disillusions with radical lawyering; his often disastrous love life; his demons continuing demand that he be successful. Kelly's efforts at candor seemed to discomfort Patrick. Besides, no matter how Kelly tried to soften it, he'd rejected a normal career. So Kelly, uncertain if Patrick found it painful to listen to him or really didn't want to know, retreated to safer topics.

Patrick, knowing Kelly would appreciate a break from carrying wood, greeted him holding two beers. As Kelly drank, Patrick silently suffered a moment's sadness. The summer before, he'd muttered to Kelly, with more than a trace of poignancy, "I'm not sure I understand any of my children." He'd been disappointed when Kelly moved to California, and didn't understand why he’d remained. An editor of the Columbia Law Review and clerk for a federal judge, Kelly could have been a success, but he seemed to want to postpone accepting responsibility forever.

"None of my children have much ambition," Patrick once observed to Kelly, "but you seem to have the least." Kelly shrugged, deciding not to provoke Patrick by replying, "Escape is an ambition."

With his four other sons, all now working in corporate finance, Patrick could chat about the stock market, investment strategies—man's talk.  Not that Patrick valued money. He and Mary still lived in the large suburban New Jersey home Kelly had grown up in. A year ago, visiting them for a day, Kelly idly asked Patrick what the house was now worth, knowing that it had risen to well into six figures from the sixteen thousand he'd paid for it in l950. Patrick eyed Kelly with a sagacious look and nodded "Oh, it's worth ... forty ... fifty thousand by now." Astounded, Kelly later asked Mary about it. "Oh," she laughed, "your father doesn't have any idea what the house is worth. He's not interested in that at all."

Temporarily Ignoring their firewood task, Kelly and Patrick sat quietly together, hearing waves lap against the boathouse dock and wind rustle the trees, until Patrick broke in, "So, how's the book business? Still solvent?"

          "Yeah," Kelly answered, "Going well."

 They chatted more about jobs, then stood up to return to work. "God, it's beautiful here," Kelly exclaimed. "I love it."

"I do too," Patrick revealed quietly. His land of freedom. Escape from absurdity and tension, the vapidity of teaching, the venality of commerce. For years he'd refused to have a phone at the camp, claiming he couldn't afford one. He felt a wave of fondness for Kelly, the most romantic of his children. Maybe today they'd put in the float. The first day Kelly arrived, Patrick, with an attempt at offhandedness, suggested that perhaps this year they shouldn't bother putting in the float, the cork world war II navy float he'd preserved—scraping, re-canvasing, repainting— since l949. "What!" Kelly cried, "No! We have to have the float! We've always had the float!"

Patrick laughed. “Some radical you are.”

Kelly laughed and carried on. “Mom needs that float to keep the boats out." Anchoring the float l5 feet from their dock protected Mary, who went for two swims daily, from reckless motorboats.

"Well, OK," Patrick replied, as if Kelly had talked him into it.

Kelly watched as Patrick placed the last piece of wood on the pile, then they strolled to sunshine by the side of the house. "Ah," Patrick relaxed, stretching. "Doesn't that give you a sense of accomplishment? "

"No," Kelly replied without reflection, "I'm just glad to get it done."

A flicker of rejection passed over Patrick's face. Kelly, realizing that he’d been insensitive, tried to reach towards Patrick. "Well, I guess, sort of ... there's a sense of taking care of things ... "

"Never mind," Patrick snapped. Work was his identity. It was in the struggles of the job, earning a living, that a man found meaning. Years before, Kelly, during a time of torment so severe he'd sought help from Patrick, asked him what you could truly believe in. "You can do a good job," Patrick replied. A creed Kelly heard from other men. His favorite English professor had told him, "I work very hard. That's one thing you can do with your life." The judge Kelly had clerked for said "They should put on my tombstone: 'He Worked.'" The wife of a senior partner of the Wall Street law firm who employed Kelly one summer told him, "You're all the same. You'll all go to a firm and work hard."

The firewood job done, Patrick rebuilt the wood framing of several front steps, and then took a brief swim. Kelly resumed reading Humbolt's Gift on the boathouse porch. It was late afternoon when Patrick hollered that he was ready to put the float in. "I'll get the pulleys," Patrick called. Ach, Kelly thought, how that man loves pulleys—loves any tool, a wedge, hammer, roller, or pulley, as long as it had been invented B.C.

Propped against a wall inside the boathouse, the cork float was rectangular shaped, open in the middle, and heavy. If another brother were available, he and Kelly could bend under the top, lift the float on their backs and inch it to the dock within minutes. But now pulleys were inescapable. Patrick tied two short ropes around one side of the float, and ordered Kelly to hook a pulley on one of the ropes. "Where?" Kelly asked. "Hook it on the side," Patrick snapped. Kelly, unsure whether "side" meant front or back, fumbled with the pulley. "Oh here, I'll do it," Patrick sighed with disgust. Kelly stepped aside, anger overwhelming his sadness at how incapable Patrick was of explaining anything to him.

Struggling to move the float to the edge of the dock, both grew tense. "OK, now attach the rope to the bottom and pull it this way," Patrick commanded. Kelly pulled on the rope. "Not that way!" Patrick exploded, "THIS WAY! Goddam it!"

Fury burst in Kelly at the new infliction of his old grievance, being berated for failing to understand ambiguous work orders. He glared rage at Patrick, who glared it back. As they continued working, Patrick directed Kelly with frenzied urgency, demanding speed and competence, as if they were preparing for an invasion, and every second mattered. "Ok ... now back just a bit ... NOT THAT FAR GODDAMMIT."

"Aw FUCK!" Kelly blew. "Why don't you just calm down and stop that goddam shouting."

"What ... Who ... " Patrick's face tightened with fury, "Who do you think you're talking to! I'm you're father. Don’t you dare ... "

"I'm not playing this game anymore," Kelly cut in. He leaned the float against the wall. "We can finish this later," he announced, and walked out.

Patrick, riddled with rage, grabbed a cigarette. Clenching his fists, his jaw trembling, he fought off his desire to chase after Kelly and pummel him. A rush of shakiness surged through him. Thank god Mary was off for a bike ride, and hadn't heard. Then rage returned, and Patrick decided he'd have a martini early. For decades, he'd kept a pitcher of martinis in the icebox. Before dinner, he'd have one glass, sometimes two. He never had a third.

Nestled in his favorite wicker chair on the house porch, Patrick watched grosbeaks feeding in his bird feeders. As he sipped the last drops of alcohol and lit another cigarette, his angers clashed with a wave of remorse. Kelly had been trying. If only he wasn't so damn insulting.

Patrick rummaged for his latest murder-mystery and tried to force himself to read, but his gnawing anger returned. To fend off his rages and despair, to find any peace, he had the strength that came from his and Mary's love, and spending two summer months mostly outdoors, and Catholicism. Mary had always been devout. Publicly, he remained a skeptic, but now he went voluntarily to mass with her every morning. Something about being in church helped against his blackness. Recently, in a rage, he'd prayed, asking The Lord for help. Kneeling down in the small wooden church, head bowed, he heard a voice inside him instruct, "Count Your Blessings," and he was instantly comforted, knowing that he had blessings.

Comfort rarely lasted long. Except in church, Patrick resisted exploring the darkness inside him. Even if he'd wanted to delve into his inner being, how could he have? No one told him that the worst enemy was internal. A loner, he had no friend to confide in. And he'd no more consider a therapist than divorce. His world said Work. A genius can fight through his culture. Other men can flee or remain in it; if they stay, they absorb it like oxygen.

Tossing his book aside, he retreated to the camp's cramped, damp basement. His room of order: nails and screws sorted by exact size into hundred of jars, rows of hammers, screw drivers, files, planes, wrenches, clamps. He dug out rot from one of the heavy wooden winter storm-shashes. Focus at his task vibrated against waves of anger until absorption in the job quieted his demons.

Kelly, upstairs in the boathouse, was smoking a joint. It's hopeless, he thought. He just goads me until I crack. That goddam ... Kelly's demon began to rage. Ranting on, it howled ever fiercer; like all demons, acting out didn't diminish its force, but strengthened it. Then, as the dope hit, familiar waves of anxiety flooded through Kelly, swirling with his anger: you fraud ... you're a coward and a fraud, and you've always known it ... that fucking asshole ... Suddenly, he felt a familiar hurt. It'd taken  considerable therapy, from LSD to therapists, to uncover the source of that pain—his longing for his father to love him. And you know part of him hates me, he reminded himself. Just plain hates me. Old lion, young lion. I was the first son, the first child. What's the reverse of an Oedipus complex? He must have hated the way I took Mary from him. I even look like her. He hated me more than the others. Suddenly, Kelly chuckled. Probably true, he thought, but he sure got pissed at them too.

As Kelly crushed out the joint, a floating feeling, an impulse to move away from rages and fears, arose in him and he walked outside to the boathouse porch. Golden late afternoon sun poured on him, on the rippling lake water. Calming, he looked to the sky, white clouds moving languidly overhead. A lone outboard cruised the lake. Anger flowed off him, out to space. He felt a sudden surge of warmth, love for this place he'd always loved. Yeah, he thought, I still need to work on this Dad stuff. The point, he knew, wasn't to demand a perfect, or near-perfect, father. It was to try to see what your father was, and how he'd affected you. He recalled Big Willie, 290 pounds, former pro football player, writer and thinker, locker-room friend. They'd been sitting together in the steam room at the Berkeley Y, listening to some guy whine about how his father had never been sensitive to him, didn't understand him. As Kelly and Big Willie headed towards the showers, Willie muttered "Shit. You mean you HAD a father! And he didn't beat you! And he supported you!"

Kelly flashed to his brother Kelvin's conclusion of a late night porch discussion. "I figure Dad's a bad father, but a good person." That's true, Kelly remembered. And, crucially, whenever one his children was really in trouble, Patrick was loving, a rock. A year out of college, Kelly couldn't find a job in Manhattan. Fired from one publishing company, rejected by others, he was sinking into panic when Patrick called him and said "Let's go up to Old Moose for a few days. Open up early." Neither mentioned that the two of them had never done this before. In their summer camp, Patrick felt a rare ease with Kelly. They joked, talked rambled. Patrick spoke of his own work struggles, his torments while job-hunting in the Depression. Soothed and loved, Kelly returned to New York with faith that he wouldn't fail.

 Patrick somehow knew whenever any of his children had serious money problems. When Kelly was at his most broke after leaving Legal Services, he got a letter from Patrick, a rare event, telling him that if he ever lacked money for food or rent, to let Patrick know and he'd send it. When other of his kids had money troubles, Patrick called them secretly into his study—Mary might think he was spoiling them—and with an embarrassment kindness produced in him, whispered, "Look, ... here ... " and gave ample money. When Brendan had been hooked on cocaine, Patrick volunteered thousands for a drug clinic.

Kelly thought appreciatively of Patrick's rebel humor: "I teach for three reasons—June, July and August."  Mary loved to tell stories of Patrick’s prickly wit. At a tedious dinner party, Patrick was finishing his second cup of coffee when a man asked him, “Doesn’t that keep you awake?” “It helps,” Patrick called back.

Kelly sat in a rocking chair, letting memories flow through him, settling on the one talk he'd had with Patrick about sex. Kelly was sixteen, and had been masturbating and fantasizing for a few years, when Patrick called him into his study. "Son ... " Patrick began in what he hoped a paternal voice sounded like, "I ... I ... I think we should have a ... talk ... You're old enough now ... uhm ... so you should know something about women ... " God, I'd love to, Kelly snickered to himself, keeping his face serious, knowing how painful this was for Patrick. Definitely, Mary had sent to do it: You Must Do Your Duty and Have a Talk With Your Son. Kelly prepared himself to listen to pious Catholic nonsense, or maybe some silly birds-and-bees stuff. "I'm ... I'm sure you know something about sex, by now," Patrick continued. Not nearly enough, Kelly joked silently. "But ... I guess what I want to tell you is that sex is connected to love. Or it should be. It's not just mechanical. Years ago, I remember my brother saying 'Oh, that's like kissing a woman after you've fucked her.' But he was wrong. If you love her, you do want to kiss a woman afterwards. Maybe not as ardently as before, but you do. So ... " Patrick shrugged, touched Kelly's shoulder, and their meeting was over.

Remembering how deeply he'd learned that his father believed in love, Kelly sadly pondered Patrick's inability to teach his children. He had a lot to teach, if he'd been able to. And what pleasures, Kelly thought, we all could have got from his teachings.

I oughta go apologize, Kelly realized. OK, so I can't really talk with him. But it’s crazy for a man over forty to be squabbling with his seventy- year-old father. Let it go. Just then he heard Patrick's tread on the stairs to the porch, and stood up.

"I came down to say I'm sorry," Patrick offered.

"Thanks," Kelly replied. "I was just going up to the house to tell you I was sorry." After their fights during Kelly's adolescence, Patrick frequently was the first to apologize, as if his rages simply were storms that passed.

"I guess we both can still get on each other's nerves somehow," Patrick said.

Kelly felt near shame. "Hey, I really am sorry. I wish I could just stay calm."

"Well, let's just forget it. I guess I just keep forgetting that you're not a kid anymore."

Kelly smiled, while silently wondering—why in the world would you want to treat your kid that way? He walked to Patrick and hugged him. When Kelly had first realized he wanted to hug his father, many years before, Patrick had responded stiffly. But by now he too had learned he could hug, that he liked to hug, and he clasped Kelly strongly.

They sat on the boathouse porch. An orange-gold sun hovered above the low purple mountains to the west. Dusk's stillness enveloped them, as they sat silently, both loving what they saw, and knowing the other loved it.

Clunk, clunk. They heard the sounds of metal beneath them. "Mary," Patrick called out, "is that you?"

"Who else?" Sßhe called back in her chipper voice. Unless it was raining, she'd gone out for a row every summer evening for decades, in the eight-foot aluminum rowboat Patrick had given her. Patrick and Kelly watched her row with crisp regular stokes, moving rapidly up the lake.

"She really is remarkable," Kelly said.

A slight sound, perhaps a sigh, escaped Patrick. "I don't know what I ever did to deserve her," he said quietly, leaning against the porch railing, watching until she'd rowed out of sight. Then he thought of some short stories Kelly'd written and sent him, of the California 60s—experiments, drugs, promiscuity, orgies. "You know, Kelly ... I think what makes me feel saddest about your life is that you haven't had anything like that."

Surprised, Kelly felt a pure pang, and looked directly at Patrick and saw empathy in his eyes. "Yeah. It makes me feel the saddest about myself too," he replied.

Kelly broke out a bottle of Grand Marnier. As they sipped drinks, Patrick reminisced about consulting in Europe after World War II, spending weeks away from the family's Paris home. Kelly mentioned he remembered Patrick being gone often when he was young.

"I had to have two jobs. I always had to work hard," Patrick said, his tone aggrieved.

"But you liked to work hard," Kelly observed.

 "What choice did I have?" Patrick snapped. "I had all those kids to support."

  Kelly mused, then spoke softly, "You know ... I think you would have worked just as hard if you had no kids," he risked, stirred by their apologies, the drinks, glimmers of sunset, impulses in his soul. "Having all those kids gave you an out, gave you a reason to be working so hard all those years, so you never had to resolve why you really did it. And now, your kids mean more to you than anything but Mary."

Looking appraisingly at Kelly, Patrick folded his arms and rocked slowly in his chair. Then he suddenly grinned. "Yeah," he nodded. "I guess that's true."

[1997]