Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Publicity still from the 1933 RKO Radio Pictures film King Kong.
In 1933 a giant gorilla named Kong was kidnapped from Skull Island, an uncharted spot of land in the Indian Ocean, and taken to New York City, where he was chained and didn’t understand anything and soon enough escaped, taking the only thing he remotely connected with in this strange new world: beauty in the form of Ann Darrow, our period-correct blond bombshell. He proceeded to scale the tallest building in the world and swatted at airplanes, which fired upon him, before he succumbed to his wounds and slipped to his doom below.
We are told this is make-believe.
I have this memory of my father: I was young. He was a hirsute man brandishing a gut he’d grown on convalescent leave after he’d been relieved of the two endmost bones of his left ring finger; he was unable to reduce this gut until he contracted, and subsequently tipped over from, esophageal cancer years later. In this memory I am small, sitting on the floor of our single-wide mobile home, and the New Mexico sun is baking the backside of these thick, colorful curtains my mother made. The fabric is rich in oranges and yellows and greens; cartoon jungle animals peek from behind palm fronds and high grasses, the dark gorilla among them. And my father bursts into the room, upset about something my brother and I have done; I cannot remember what. He is standing above me, backed by cheesy wood paneling and a yellowing ceiling, and he’s spinning and spinning his arms, his mouth open wide behind a grizzled black beard, and in this memory there is no sound, only the roaring silence of him spinning and spinning in slow motion, almost as if he were dancing, his face conveying that he’s angry, or maybe that he doesn’t understand why he’s doing any of this at all.
I prefer Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong. For Kong’s eyes. For his scars. For the broken jaw healed up wrong, pointing painfully in an incorrect direction. For the realism of the gorilla. For the way he moves, the way he grasps things. For the more typical gorilla gut. For the shelter in his brutality, when Ann is trapped between the last T-Rex and Kong, and she slowly retreats to Kong’s safety; and the way he plays with the T-Rex’s jaw after he breaks it, flopping it around, almost confused by how it now functions. And for the way he plays with her, Ann, when she tries to juggle rocks or dance for him. The way he laughs, hooting madly, after pushing her over with his mighty finger. There’s something so pure about that. Unsophisticated. Playground masculine. No malice in it. Using the primitive, brutish tools we’ve been given to attempt to understand love — tools that weren’t meant for love at all — Kong adapts them the best he can.
Once, my father took my brother and me to swim at the river behind our house. We were teens at the time, and our father uncharacteristically asked, “Do you fuckers want to fight?”
His tone was joking, but he was serious. He was standing waist deep in the green summer water of the Animas River, knees slightly bent, arms held before him like a Greco-Roman wrestler, a shaggy gray-black beard dripping water, an open-mouthed smile of popcorn-kernel-colored teeth arranged in roughly the pattern of Stonehenge.
“You fuckers want some?” he said, pivoting back and forth.
Yeah, we fuckers wanted some. Because my dad never played with us, not like this. When he was in his early twenties, a washing machine had fallen on him at a SoCal Sears. By the time he stood before us in that river, his spine could more accurately be described as cobbled-together gravel. This man was in so much pain he had, on more than one occasion, asked me to tie his shoes so he could go to work. Yet he would work a twelve-hour shift at a machine shop as the resident welder so we could be warm and dry and could eat meat and drink milk.
So my brother and I, with no regard for our father’s back, charged him under that New Mexico sun. He got a little lower in the water. I lunged for his waist. He threw a hard right to my ribs, and I rolled off to the side and fell under the water. Pushing back to the surface, I saw my brother try a similar maneuver only to be swatted away with a backhand. I came at my father’s exposed kidneys, but before I could establish any kind of hold, he wrapped his hairy arm around my head and began to choke me. I heard a war cry from my brother and felt my father’s weight shift as my brother launched himself from the water and landed on my father’s back, wrapping both arms under his beard and around his neck. My father, having none of this, reached behind his head and got ahold of my brother’s face, and while bending down and dunking me in the water, he threw my brother over his head. Without letting go, he lifted my brother out of the water with one hand, holding this sixteen-year-old skyward, laughing a deep laugh while my brother kicked his legs, his feet still in the water, his hands clawing at my father’s meaty paw, making a sound that might have been laughter if it hadn’t been subdued by my father’s palm. Then my father chucked my brother, punched me in the gut, and threw me away as well. By the time my brother and I could surface again, my father had his right hand on his lower back and his left hand outstretched in our direction, the nub of his ring finger pointing skyward.
“That’s it. I’m done. You guys fucked up my back.” He limped out of the river and up to shore, where he didn’t even turn around. He walked down the muddy bank, over the sandy mound, and into the cattails to a trail we had made summers before this one.
And he was gone.
Kong wasn’t built for our world. He is a giant gorilla, born of his environment. All he’s ever known is battle. His face is crooked and broken, teeth chipped. He is beyond strong. Capable. He is not savvy by any means, but for his time and place, he’s the man. Then he is removed and brought into our world. A place he doesn’t understand. A place that is faster and brighter and more everything than he’s ever seen. He is agitated. Afraid. He lashes out.
And the world punishes him for it.
In 1996, after a summer filled with swimming, my brother became the victim of a driver who fell asleep at the wheel in midday, running him down, his life vanishing like turning off a flashlight.
My father went back to work the day after my brother passed. He started to build a fifty-foot tri-axle trailer from scratch. Truck after truck delivered sheet steel, channel and angle iron, and tubing. The axles themselves were the only pieces he bought premade. He worked seven days a week, a minimum of twelve hours a day. He had no crane, lifting every piece of iron himself. He had no plans, building only from years of experience. He cut and spliced and supported and ground and bent and wired and painted and hefted and sweated and bled, and the end result was an enclosed trailer that opened up, containing a carnival ride. This included folding doors and the entrance and exit platforms for customers. It even had a small living space in it, complete with a generator to power the whole operation. He stepped back from this job, a monumental effort for one man, and went right on to another job afterward, never once commenting on it.
No matter how hard he worked, he couldn’t press rewind. I don’t think he could articulate this, but I’m sure he felt it.
In late May, the spring before his death, my brother and I sprinted off of the school bus and into the house, quickly changed into our swim trunks, slipped on our old swimming sneakers because of the snakes and old cars in the river, yelled, “We’re going swimming!” and ran out the door and into the afternoon sun. We zipped along the half-mile trail across the beaver dam and through the cattails, and charged into the river behind our house, diving under the water. I surfaced after him, and he was right there, socking me in the gut. I lost my wind but had time to turn and punch him in the ribs, the dull thud of it satisfying. He tackled me, and we both went under, thrashing wildly. We came up for air, gasping, and went at each other again, trading blows before he wrapped his arms around my waist and threw me over his back. I splashed into the river, colliding with the knobby stones under the water, and came up again. Faced him. Arms extended. Knees bent. Ready. We just stood there, dripping. The green of the river moving around us, indifferent to our existence. I noticed that he was beginning to grow chest hair. Then we laughed, without knowing what was funny. And we swam across the river to the deep, taking turns diving down, holding on to the boulders at the bottom to see who could last the longest.
I don’t know what to do with this life. I’m still on the shore of that river, waiting for my brother to come up. I’m hyperventilating to get my oxygen levels up so I can win the contest. The sun is stuck in place, the clouds frozen; the day doesn’t move on. The water is in an eternal loop leaving stage left and reappearing from stage right. I keep breathing, waiting for my turn to dive. Somewhere beyond this memory the world keeps asking me to leave this place, demanding that I go, violently trying to tear me from this moment. But there’s my father, standing above our swimming hole, his terrifyingly large self sheltering me from all the bullets the world has to offer. He’s so hobbled, spine crushed in upon itself. The planes’ strafing runs have all but done him in. But his broken back is faced outward, to the rest of the world, a crippled shield of sorts, and his eyes are on me, his arms up and over and around me on all sides, holding off danger for a little longer. His brow furrowed. His knotted muscles growing weaker and weaker with each attack. But through all of this his eyes are still kind. Holding just a little more space for me to get it all right before I have to go under myself.
It’s hard to watch Kong die. He is barely clinging to the top of the Empire State Building, and he’s been through so much. Held so much pain. Ann touches his face before he takes one more hail of bullets from the biplane behind him, shielding her once more, and then he goes slack, collapsing onto the tower, a hairsbreadth from toppling over. Holding the light for just a moment longer. And Ann is there with him, resting against his massive, scarred fingers as she watches the light slip from him, off to somewhere we’ve never been before, and she knows. And we know.
And I want to take the movie and throw it out the goddamn window, and then I want to take this fucking essay and throw it out the window, too, along with this table and this chair and the couch and every stick of furniture in this house and then throw the house itself out the window, all of reality thrown out in a blind rage of love, because that’s all I’ve ever known, a fury so beautiful that it overwhelms. And I’m doing the best I can with the tools I’ve been given. But I keep failing.
I didn’t see my father die, but I know there were no planes, no guns, no crowd of onlookers below. I imagine that, like Kong, he closed his eyes easy. He was in a hospital bed, tubes running in and out of him, the machines making up for the effort he could not give, before he fell off his own Empire State, 102 cloudless stories through the sky, dead before he hit bottom, an empty vessel. For my father it must have felt like falling out of himself, through a memory, and landing in the river again, this time with a good, strong back made of infinite steel. And before him, in the eternal heat of this New Mexico memory, his dead son rises from the deep, having held his breath longer than anyone’s ever done, fresh as the moment before the car snatched his light. And they assume the positions, squaring off, wrestling in this river, which is as green as it ever was, grappling headlocks and throwing shoulders and jabbing punches to the ribs, the echoes like thunderclaps, two apes fit to be gods, loving savagely, grunting under the strain of their ever-long battle.
Nicholas Dighiera’s essay “Kong” [March 2022] made me realize that I do not yet have the skills or emotional honesty to write about my own father in a way that I consider adequate of him. Dighiera’s essay was worth that bit of enlightenment.