writing chapter 4.6
Meanwhile, across town…
Nathan had his after-school job, on two conditions – that he keep his grades up, and that his dad didn’t find out. He’d arranged with school to do work study, so he would make his first couple of classes and then be out the door for a half hour train ride to the Suntrust foodcourt, where he worked from 11:30 until 2:30, then sat in the empty atrium doing his homework, and got home in time for dinner, which was mandatory in his house.
Tonight Dad beat him home. Dad turned around in his chair and caught Nathan trying to edge silently to his room. “Why you creeping around, boy? Come here and let me see what you’ve got in that backpack of yours. You’re not doing drugs, are you, kid?” He kept up a patter of suspicious questions while rummaging thru Nathan’s book bag, and fished out his laptop with a smirk. “I didn’t buy you no laptop, where’d you get this?”
“It’s the school’s, Dad. See, there’s the sticker on the back. Property of.”
“Don’t smartmouth me. What are you doing with a computer?”
“It’s for doing my homework. It’s for my advanced placement classes.”
“What else you do with it? Play videogames? Watch porn movies? Fall for old lechers pretending they’re teenage girls?” Nathan froze for a moment when Dad asked about videogames. What did Dad know? “You better not be doing any of those things, or I’ll take it away and run my drill thru it.”
“Dad, you can’t. It’s not mine.”
“You’re right there. In this house, it’s mine. Hand it over.” Dad didn’t let up until Nathan gave him the laptop. Then he had to show him how to open it. Then he had to show him how to turn it on. And then he had to identify a few icons. And then the battery noises started, and Dad got nervous and let Nathan have it back, suddenly wondering if his son wasn’t a terrorist plotting to blow something up. He picked a book out of the backpack. Quantum Physics for Dummies. He thumbed thru the book, which was mostly equations. “What kind of language is that?” he asked. “This what you learn in school?” He pointed at the illustrations of goofy teenagers doing impossible things. “Are you sure this isn’t a comic book? It looks like a Japanese comic book. Those are the worst. Where’s the sex?”
Nathan reached to take it back. “No, Dad, it’s a math book, that’s all. Everybody studies quantum physics in high school.” He said this not out of contempt for his dad’s ignorance, but to protect himself from accusations of being smarter than everybody else.
He’d quickly gotten used to a civilized code of conduct when dealing with adults over the lunch counter. It was obvious to him that Dad operated under a different code. Father Knows Best, otherwise known as Jerks Win. When they were younger, Dad insisted they only watch reruns of black and white TV shows, and sputtered if someone mentioned Bart Simpson. Usually Dad’s king of the castle rant irritated Nathan, but his new job made him more confident, and Dad’s taunting had stopped bothering him. However, the less Dad knew in general, the easier it was to get around him. He brought Dad a beer and escaped to his room.
The reason for Dad’s shrillness had to do with his job, where the pressure had notched up. Not only was he now required to supply an exhaustive list of every single thing he did, for an updated job description that corporate had mentioned in the same breath as compensation adjustments, but he also had to work up the same thing for all of his employees. And because corporate also increased their sales quota over last month’s, he had to bust his ass dragging in more business.
He felt so discouraged. The American dream was all about independence and freedom, self-reliance and strength. Here he was caught in a place that only valued fearful, dependent obedience. Work hard and be a good wage slave, keep your head down, never try to out-think the boss, and never show an original thought or they’ll use it against you. It went without saying that he was less tolerant than ever of misbehavior at home. He wanted to beat it into Nathan’s head before the boy ruined his life being so sensitive and rebellious.
Dad’s attention was caught by an ad for a movie he couldn’t wait to see. A dark stranger stalks thru gloomy urban shadows. A gravelly voice: “He’s fabulously wealthy, a financial wizard, a job creator.” The camera focuses on his face – punishing, cruel, hyper-masculine. “He’s a one man army, fighting to win in a ruthless world where only the fittest survive.” The camera pans over razor-wire enclosed factory prisons, military patrolled city blocks, land-mined parks and neighborhoods. “Now he’s going to take his revenge on the diseased vermin that infest his city.” The scene shows food lines, refugees, piled-up bodies. “Run. Batman’s Coming.”
Dad was excited. He loved cliches. Greed was good. Revenge was sweet. Every man for himself. He admired the rich and powerful – look how much they made. Unlimited wealth and power was a great idea. Only the strong and ruthless, survival of the fittest, American Way.
“I’ll tell you what freedom is. It’s being able to look after myself and my family without having to deal with haters who don’t want to silence me because it might offend some whining scumbag welfare rat, or endanger some goddamn salamander or something. I don’t care about them. It’s not my job to solve America’s problems. My only responsibility is to feed my family.”
But why does it always have to be your way? You’re not the only one who can be right. But yes I am. God put me in charge of the family, God wants me making the decisions and shouldering the burdens, and you need to stop fighting reality and do what you’re told.
“Why do I have to obey you without question? I know right from wrong.” “Hah, you were born bad, more than most.” He reached over and pinched Nathan’s arm hard. I’m the head of this family, and we’re going it my way. i’m strict because i’m a father, and my dad beat responsibility into me from an early age. Some day you’ll understand. I’m the only one who says what’s right or wrong here. You’d jump off a roof if someone told you to, so it’s my responsibility to protect my kids from the evil in the world, and you’d better fucking obey me if you want to remain safe. The reason you need to obey me is so you’ll learn discipline so we can trust you to go out in the world and do the right thing. And if you don’t, then the Bible tells us to beat the living shit out of you so that you are incentivized to do it right the next time.”
Nathan went to his room instead of watching the tube, and, inspired by Kurt, studied quantum computing, starting with a coursera class. Half an hour later, Dad stopped by on his way to the bathroom. He walked in without knocking, hoping to surprise Nathan jerking off to some diseased internet slag. He found him sitting fully clothed, propped up on the pillow, reading his physics book. “So tell me about this quantum physics,” he said, sitting heavily on the edge of the bed.
Nathan drew a blank. Where to start? There was his dad, weaving back and forth like he was going to fall off the bed while Nathan searched for something that would satisfy him and get him out of there and back to his couch. But how to simplify it so Dad could understand it without making it sound like magic? If he said everything was relative, Dad would get mad. If he said anything about multiple universes, Dad would get mad. If he said anything about the role of the observer, Dad would get mad, because Dad would be vaguely threatened by the idea that an observer’s expectations could influence reality, and he would be agitated by the idea of different realities, and outraged by the suggestion that right and wrong weren’t absolute. Worst of all, he would look at Nathan as if he was the source of these poisonous lies that must be crushed before they festered. So he said something about transistors and satellite TV and the GPSs Dad sold at work, and Dad nodded comfortably, patted Nathan on the head, and staggered off to the bathroom.
Sis came in while Dad was taking a pee. She was wearing black leather and chains, and swaggered into the kitchen. Soon she and Mom were having a fight about the speeding ticket she came home with. You could have heard them outside. Dad broke it up and told Mom to get Sis’s dinner and bring him a beer. Mom wanted to keep fighting with Sis, who stuck her tongue out over Dad’s shoulder, but Dad didn’t tolerate sass from anybody, so Mom meekly heated Sis’s pot pie and fussed around Dad for awhile mollifying him. He and Sis sat whispering to each other, saying mean things about Mom.
Dad took care of her ticket, of course, and she had no trouble convincing him that it was the first time she’d done anything even a little bad. Sis was hiding the fact that her grades were bottoming out, mostly because she was sleeping right thru her early classes, and either sitting in class texting people or going out awol. She was hanging out with members of the local gang who went to her high school, and were much more exciting than other students. She liked to take their dares and pull fire alarms and race thru cars at the stoplights. She got in people’s faces and acted as tough as the guys did, and while they laughed at her, they all jostled to get next to her. Actually, they all wanted to fuck her, but she was playing politics with the head of the gang and his closest rival, so they all kept an uneasy distance.
Next afternoon, Nathan looked up from his homework to see Kurt sitting at a table down the foodcourt, puffing absently on an electronic cigarette and scribbling on a pad of stickies, his lank hair falling into his eyes over and over, reaching stubby fingers up and tucking the hair behind his ears over and over. Nathan left his things at his table and walked over to say hi, and weaved around awkwardly for a minute trying to make conversation. They talked about how his job was going, and about saving up for next year’s Dragoncon, and then Nathan asked Kurt what he was up to.