Stengrow's Dad


Elia Katz


Chapter 1.
See and Raise.

Six years ago. The night I made the discovery that tore me from my family, and the life I had known, and threw me onto the dark, broken road that ends at the door to this plaid room where I write, on my Executive Writing Tablet, in the light of this brown TV...

I was l7 years old.

I was sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and father, and my sister Tule, playing poker. We were in the family condo, in Santa Monica. Outside, the tree-bats flapped through the trees, and sat on the condo patios, among the bicycles and hibachi grills.

All night I had been the winner. The table in front of me was covered with mounds of red, white and blue chips. There were so many it became a chore to stack them, and my father had already told me a couple of times to get them organized. Once, he even refused to deal the cards until I had carefully gathered up all my chips and put them in neat piles. I did this, feeling that he might reach out and swipe at me across the table, in his anger. Not that my father had ever hit me, but on this night, and in the weeks and months preceding it, I noticed more and more that my father's feelings toward me had changed, in some way I didn't understand. It was as though he was trying to communicate to me, in all kinds of ways (except by telling me) that I had done something wrong. I couldn't figure out what it was.

My mother was looking at him as though he were a plate she had balanced precariously on a coffee cup while she stretched for the phone, as though she were ready at a moment's notice to drop whatever she was doing and catch him before he slid off the coffee cup onto the floor. Her hands were nervous, ready to cover his mouth. Her mouth was ready to talk loudly and drown out whatever he said, if she should find it necessary. Once or twice I looked up from my hand and saw the two of them exchanging looks. My father finished his babka with butter and his cup of coffee. He sighed. We played another hand. The spirit of mischief came over me. I had nothing in my hand, but instead of asking for three cards, I only asked for one. This made it seem there was something about the four cards I had kept that I liked. When everyone had taken the cards they wanted, and the betting began, I raised the pot over and over. Finally, my sister and mother both folded. My mother said somebody had better just settle down, but my father and I sat there, betting against one another.

In these games, money changed hands at the end. We weren't betting for much, but it was real money. There got to be about eleven dollars in the pot, and my father finally listened to the gentle voice of my mother (I wouldn't) and he said "I'm out," and threw his cards on the tablecloth, (I can still see the golden plastic of that tablecloth, and feel the stamped smoothness of the translucent flowers around the border) and smiled at my mother, who touched his hand supportively, because he was being a mature person, and she was relieved, and he didn't seem to hate me any more, but instead was looking at me lovingly.

I put my cards down, face down, and started to gather up the sea of plastic chips, chortling as I did it, in that family style of chortling, when you know everyone is on your side and everyone loves to see you happy, and you feel like acting up. My father reached in over the chips, between my gathering forearms, and flipped my cards over, saying, "Let's see what the boy had."

I had nothing. The fifth card had not matched any of those in my hand.

My father said, "Not even a pair of deuces. The boy has zip."

"Heh," my mother said in an attempt to laugh, or at least to indicate laughter, and she leaned against him in a playful way. But he was looking stranger and stranger, his eyes all lit with waters and lights I was not to understand at all for the next few seconds, and I was not to fully understand ever, even up to this moment, as this dragon fly hops across the wall over the TV, distracting my eye.

"I had three nines, but I gave him the pot," said my father to my mother, "because you conned me into it."

"I didn't con you, darling..."

I watched them. My sister slunk away into the kitchen.

"I guess it's his highly-prized intelligence," said my father, and when I looked at him he was smiling at me. "Our son, the genius... You're a great genius, aren't you?" he said to me. Then, to my mother, he said, "The great genius. The great genius."

"Shut up, Nick," said my mother, at the same time looking frightened, tired ...

"He must get it from his wonderful parents," said my father. "It's 85% of the battle if you have the right parents, right, son?" he said, with that big smile and those wet eyes, like you don't want to see your father's eyes, except in a situation where the two of you are in agreement, and united.

"Did you ever hear of the genie from the bottle?" my father then asked me.

I said, "you want to play that hand over again?"

"That's what you are," he said to me, "the genie from the bottle."

"What is that supposed to mean?" I asked, wishing he would go for a walk or something.

"It doesn't mean anything," said my mother. "It means your father is a sore loser."

My father turned to my mother and wiped away a tear from his own eye. "His father?" he said. "His father's a glass tube. His father's some anonymous stain in some beaker somewhere, that's all we know about that illustrious individual. His father!"

My mother said, "Reynold, go down to Wilshire, I need something at the store," and she reached across the table and started tugging at my arm, to make me go. I didn't even look at her, I couldn't hear what she was saying. I was staring at my father's hands, which now covered his face. I watched him make rubbing, washing motions with his hands. Finally, he put them down, and he looked at me. He said, in a voice that sounded as though he were speaking from his death-bed — croaking: "Your father isn't me. I want you to know that (and here he said my name, which I may not honestly reveal to you, but must transcribe as) Reynold. He isn't me."

"Oh, my God!" said my mother, and she grabbed his throat as though attempting to strangle him. His chair fell over backwards and they both hit the carpet shouting with surprise.

The secret was out.

But not all of it.

Later, as the three of us sat around the coffee table in the living room, and I toed at the magazines with embarrassment and anger as they both talked to me (they were together again in their love) I discovered the rest of the secret, which concerns things done to me, and even things done to the components of myself, prior to their combination into the person I know as me, and everyone else knows as my pseudonym, and effects.

Perhaps, telling this will help you understand how I came to do the things I have done since the night I made this discovery. Things which the Government and the media have portrayed as crimes, and which probably were crimes. Perhaps, it will have no bearing on my case at all. I want to tell it anyway, the story of my creation.

They sat side by side on the white couch. Above their heads was an oil painting of the four of us, Mom, Dad, Tule and me, painted when I was five or six. We all still looked like the people in the picture. My mother, hands pressed together on her knees, began by telling me she and my father were very, very sorry I had learned the truth this way.

She said, "We've talked hundreds of times about how to tell you, Reynold, but we could never agree on a way. I am sorry to say that most of the time, I think both of us intended never to tell you at all. Certainly not like this... In this traumatic... "

She reached out and put her hand on mine. My father put his hand on hers. They looked at each other and kissed. She was crying. She sat back, pulled some tissues from the mother-of-pearl box on the side table, blew her nose, wiped her eye, and put the tissues in her dungaree pocket.

She said, "A little over twenty years ago, your father and I decided we were ready to have a child. We were in love, we were optimistic about the future of the world, or some such nonsense, and we felt, in a way, obligated to contribute something of ourselves for the sake of the future. Typical, and if not praiseworthy, at least not entirely evil, motives for having a child. Maybe, not even true. Maybe, with our teaching careers going well, with both of us having travelled to most of the cities and nations in the world, and with me facing the prospect of starting the novel I had always told everyone I wanted to write, the only way out I could see for myself was to become a mother. Whatever the spark actually was, we tried. We tried and tried and tried. Three, four, five years went by. 'We're still trying,' we told our parents and friends. Nothing. We saw doctors, one after another. Nothing. We were about to give up, when the cleaning lady who cleaned our rental units to get them ready for the summer, told me about a doctor in Burbank. This doctor could work miracles, she told me. His name was Dr. Lord, Hamish Lord. At first, we didn't really think about going to him. We were tired of doctors, of hoping, and trying."

"Then we saw him on TV," said my father, joining in really for the first time, the muggy look of guilt starting to clear up on his face, and the strength coming back into his voice. He even laughed, though dimly. "He was in handcuffs, and they were leading him into the District Central lockup!" He laughed again, and I could see he felt a certain admiration for this Dr. Lord, and especially for the fact that he had been arrested.

I was smiling, but wary, as I always am when someone discusses a period in my life when I was not yet a conscious being.

"What was he being arrested for?" I asked my Dad.

But my Mom answered. "That was for the genius thing."

When I looked perplexed, my father said, "He promised people a genius for a kid, and somebody didn't like that and they complained or something, and Dr. Lord had to stand trial..."

"But for what?" I asked.

"For nothing. Envy," my father said, and swiped the thought away with a strange dance-like movement of his right arm. Then, the strength that had carried him through that gesture, carried his hand to the serving tray, where he gathered more of the rich bakery crumbs from the babka we had had for dessert, and brought them to his mouth, which was still smiling. He was beginning to enjoy the story. They both were. I realized they had never told anyone before.

"We thought, shit. A genius! That might be interesting to have in the family," said my Dad through the dry crumbs.

"I remember we went out there early in the morning," my mother said, as she fed my father more small pieces of broken-up cake and cookies, those yellow cookies with the chocolate icing in the shape of oak leaves covering their top halves. He was shaking slightly as she fed him, as though he was cold.

"He lived across the street from a little airfield, for those small planes, you know," she said.

"We should have spit on the ground and turned around and walked away," said my father. My mother fed him a piece of cookie, and pushed a crumb from the corner of his chalk-white lips into his mouth. She said, "Be a man about this, Nick." He looked at me, peered at me like a man waking up from a long sleep, recognizing a face he feels he should know, not wanting to admit he doesn't.

"He had a little California Craftsman," said my mother, referring to the house of Dr. Lord. "Remember, Nick? How lovely it was, with those strange flowers growing all up the fence around the porch?" She looked at me. "The flowers — you would have thought you were in South America," she said. "There was a chain link fence across the street, and little planes were pulling up to it, like they were looking at us through the fence."

"He doesn't care what was across the street," said my father, pushing her hand away, even though she had bunched up her fingers and was about to transport to his mouth a large mound of crumbs.

"We had a l954 Lincoln," she said to me, as she first held the compressed thumb, crumbs and fingers toward me, asking with her eyes if I wanted any. I shook my head. She ate the crumbs herself and continued. "It was blue and grey, with a green interior. The seats had a diamond pattern in white leather cutouts along the top where you rested your head." Here, she brushed my father's thinning brown hair back with her hand. She got some crumbs in his hair, which she quickly picked out and threw on the floor behind his chair. "I remember it so well," she said, "that street he lived on, so white, white—like talcum powder was covering the whole road, and the sidewalk, the lawns, everywhere. It was six-thirty in the morning. Dr. Lord had told me on the phone that his office hours were from five-thirty to seven, every weekday morning. He said by the time most people were getting to work in the morning, he was back in bed — "

"Weird hours," I said. I had a feeling of foreboding, concerning what was coming, but I wanted to keep things as normal as possible for as long as possible. I felt I should make comments. I also felt I should make those sounds you make when you want to indicate to somebody that you care about what they are saying, and want them to continue, and that I should have some sort of facial expression, while she was talking to me, but I was too tense for any of these things. I sat like a stone, after I had squeezed out the words, "weird hours..."

"It was fine with us," said my mother. "We wanted a child — we wanted you — so badly, we would have gone there at midnight. Anyway, we were able to drive to his place on the way to work; and then we stopped at Du-Par's when we got through there, before we went to our respective schools. Remember that, Nick?"

My father said, "Du-Par's," and brought a crumb down from his hairline by pressing his forefinger against his face as the crumb slid all the way down to his mouth, and then he ate it.

"So we got out of the car, and it was total quiet. When we shut the car doors we felt like somebody was going to scream at us from a window for waking them up. We scuffled across the road, up the stairs to the doctor's house. He had a porch, covered with flowers. On the mailbox it said, Dr. Hamish Lord, M.D."

My mother's face had assumed that trancelike appearance she often got when remembering things from her past. She was travelling through the past in a diver's suit, walking through the aquarium of bygone scenes, speaking into a tiny microphone, recording everything that floats by her, for those listening to her story — in this case, my father and me — to hear, at their posts on the surface of the ocean, bobbing in their boat, waiting for her to return to them.

"Your father turned to me," she said. "There was dew on the wood, on the mailbox. Your father kissed me. That was so sweet. He touched my waist. We kissed again. Then, he kissed me on the forehead, as though he was worried, so I said, 'Don't worry. It's in God's hands,' and he said 'OK, baby.'

"There was a cheap, plywood door, painted red. It didn't even look like the door to a house. It was like a door from one room to another, inside a house, but not a door to the street. I didn't like that. Your father knocked on the door. We watched it, but nobody answered, nobody came to the door. So your father said, 'What would General MacArthur do in a case like this?' You know, it was a joke we had."

"Luana," said my Dad, rolling his eyes and then his whole head.

"Just then we heard a voice, calling — remember, Nickie? Calling: "I'm here! I'm on the way!" And there he was — Dr. Lord — coming up over that hilly street, that powdery sidewalk — "Thirty more feet! Here comes Dr. Lord! Coming to you now!" This roly-poly little muffin. Like a round, golden corn muffin, chugging up the hill. He had these big hips and tiny little feet. I thought at first it wasn't a man, but a small dog on a unicycle, wobbling up the hill, about to fall off the unicycle at every moment... possibly with a man behind him. But, of course, that was the man. That was Dr. Lord himself.

"When he got up the stairs, and he came right up near to us, and I could smell his breath, I coughed."

"The man was a drunken pig," said my Dad. "Still is."

"Shh!" said my Mom, quickly, so that I was clued to the fact that my father had revealed something (even in those few words which fate and my mother had allotted to him) that he shouldn't have revealed to me.

I realized that what my father had said, and my mother's reaction to it, meant they still saw this Dr. Lord, or at least had some contact with him.

"He could hardly find the keyhole of his door," said my mother. "He could tell I disapproved of the fact that he was obviously drunk as a skunk at six in the morning. He could see how I felt, a potential patient after all. So he kept looking at me, instead of the door, and scraping the key all over the place. 'Madam,' he said to me,' if you had discovered, even as a child, that you were of an order of intelligence not dreamed of or hoped for by the rest of the people with whom you had daily contact; and if you, further, found the picture did not improve no matter how close to the border you allowed yourself to look; that is, if you found, even as a child, that you were desperately alone in this world, and if your attempts to use the natural intelligence with which you had been blessed, were met, from the start, with the scorn and laughter of humanity, that tree of old foam — I ask you — hic — as a fellow individual — what would you have done that I have not done? Would you, do you think, have resigned yourself to a lifetime in your own company, made pleasant only by the addition of some drug or stimulant to the daily routine? Well, so did I.' That's when I took the keys out of this cool, plump little hand — like a white cupcake coming out of his sleeve — and I opened the door, and we went in. First I went in, then Dr. Lord, with his breath, and then your father. Your father closed the door before anyone had turned on any lights. Dr. Lord put his hand on my behind, under my dress, and goosed me. I gave a little yell, because it was so surprising. Your father asked what was the matter, and I said, "Oh, nothing." Of course, I told him later, when we were thinking everything over — thinking over whether or not to go back to Dr. Lord, and have the procedure done."

"What procedure?" That was me, rubbing one of my eyes vigorously as I spoke, and closing the other one.

What was this procedure doing in the story of my birth, and how could I get rid of it, without hearing what it was?

But it was too late. A thing like a procedure can either be totally forgotten, never mentioned, or, once mentioned, must be entirely brought out into the open. The procedure in my past had put its foot in my door, and I knew it wouldn't leave me alone until I had bought the whole encyclopedia.

"That's what we're getting to," said my mother. I heard the tinny, hopeless melody of the ice cream truck outside our little cream-colored building.

Chapter 2.
"In Vitro Veritas."

The doctor took my parents into a back room of his house.

As my mother recalled it, when she was telling me, the room was covered with white dust, everywhere, like the dust in the street outside the house. The doctor had to kick aside small piles of dirty laundry. Then, he bent to shove against the wall a leaning stack of magazines, so my mother could pass by them with ease. In this back room, he had a collection of used furniture, and medical diagrams, that made it look like an examination room. There was a dentist's chair in the center which Dr. Lord said he was using as an examination table, because his real examination table was being used as a lawn chair by his nurse, one Lilly Bakoff, who waved to my parents from the back yard, where she was relaxing on the table at that moment.

On the walls, Dr. Lord had a series of medical drawings with thick arrows leading the viewer's eye from one to the other — all on a series of ivory oaktag sheets around the walls — representations of the stages of Dr. Lord's procedure.

These days, in vitro fertilization is fairly commonplace, but you have to remember this was l973, and my parents had never heard of anything like it before. They were amazed as Dr. Lord showed them how it worked — the egg cells taken from the woman, then combined with the sperm of an anonymous donor, in a round, low-sided dish called a petrie dish, then placed in an incubator for a few days, to start the embryo's life on its way, then inserted into the mother's womb for the rest of the foetal journey, with its dividings and expandings into the formal nest of eights called a human being.

"But who's baby will it be?" asked my mother right away.

"Yours, dear lady," said Dr. Lord. "Yours and your husband's child it will be, completely."

"You mean, the egg cells will come from me and the sperm cells will come from Nick?"

"I didn't say that," said Dr. Lord, putting his hand up like a traffic cop. "Each couple is different. In your case, the fact is, you are perfectly capable of reproducing, but Nick isn't. According to what you told me on the telephone, his sperm — possibly because of genetic reasons, possibly through some excess in the way he has led his life — it doesn't matter, really — his sperm has about as much life in it as a bag of drowned puppies. No offense."

"No offense taken," said my father, "but if the sperm isn't going to come from me, who will it come from?"

The doctor said, "Here is the real beauty of the method I have hit upon. In cases like this one, where the husband can't provide it, we get the necessary masculine component from one of a limited number of men, all thoroughly tested by me, all completely known to me. Not only they, but their families, going back as far as anyone in each family can remember, are included in the information bank I require for each sperm donor before I will consider using his sperm for the delicate, personal, and holy purpose to which it is intended. As a result of this careful research, I can guarantee that the biological father of the child will be, with one hundred per cent certainty, a total and complete genius."

"Well, good bye, Doctor," said my mother. She was ready to leave. She had thought the famous procedure would allow her to have my father's child, and she didn't want to be the mother of anyone else's child, she said.

"Not so fast," said my father, and held onto the belt of her raincoat, so she couldn't get out of the room. He was still looking up at the oaktag diagrams, fascinated. "Who are these, uh, genius donors, Dr. Lord?" he said.

"The greatest minds of our time and place," said Dr. Lord. "The goal of my work is to improve the genetic material of the human race. In order to do this, I have prevailed upon a few men of acknowledged brilliance in their respective professions, to donate their sperm. This seed, the raw material of a brighter future for all mankind, I then match with carefully chosen couples, who want and can provide good homes for, the next generation of geniuses."

"But who are they, specifically?" asked my father. "Do we get to meet them, and pick the one we want?"

"I'm afraid that is a matter between myself and my donors, Mr. Stengrow," said the doctor, "but you can rest assured these are the sort of fine, high-class individuals you yourself would choose to impregnate your wife, if you met them. Which I would love for you to do, if it weren't for my strict rule, keeping the donor and the receiving couple totally unknown to each other. I'm sure you understand. But I assure you that, as the District Attorney has so accurately written in the complaint against me, I only accept the seed of geniuses. That is the purpose of my clinic. Not to fulfill your dreams of parenthood, noble though I am sure they are — but to increase the number of geniuses in the world! Let them call me an elitist, let them call me...' and here he drifted off, to total silence and a period of wobbling on his feet, with his eyes closed, before he started up again, loudly calling: 'The biological father — '

"'Which one is that?' I asked him," said Mom.

"'That's the sperm donor,' said Dr. Lord. 'He will be a man with at least a 150 IQ. That is my breakthrough. That is my service to the nations and peoples of the earth, little regard though they have had for me,' he sniffed. 'Mr. Stengrow will be the legal father, however, and the biological father will have no rights at all over the child. You can understand why. Except for the physical reality of his high I.Q. health-filled sperm, it will be as though the biological father never existed. As a person, he is not. As an individual, you can forget him completely. Don't even think about him —'"

"But I want a child who looks like me, my family — or at least has a chance —" said my father. He is light-colored, with light, long eyelashes and pale blue eyes that sometimes, especially in the bright sunlight, make him look insane. My mother is even lighter — with white skin and light red hair. The doctor assured my father that the child would look like he, my father, did. In this, he lied. As I look at myself here in the mirror, I see a large man with black hair and brown eyes.

"But you're sure the procedure will be safe for my wife?" asked my father.

"I've done over a hundred of these fertilizations, and so far not a single problem for a mother since the twenty-fifth, if you don't count the thirty-eighth —"

"Over a hundred?" said the young husband, his renewed hope allowing him to touch his wife for the first time since they had arrived there. He pressed his thigh against hers.

"Well," said the Doctor, looking around the room, and out the door into the corridor, for his nurse, "not all of them were human females, of course. But still, they were primates. Mammals, anyway, most of them — Lilly!"

And the nurse, who had been sunning herself in the rising sun, on the former examination table, came into the house. According to my mother, she was a large, beautiful woman, around two hundred pounds. She showed them the rest of the set-up while Dr. Lord went into the kitchen and resumed the drinking he had evidently interrupted somewhere else in order to get to his house in time to meet my parents.

Nurse Lilly told my parents again about the high calibre of the sperm donors, and in order to dispel any corners of vagueness that might still exist in their minds concerning this event, she showed them the room where the sperm donors, inspired by Dr. Lord's historic collection of girlie magazines and pornographic novels, donated their sperm into glass beakers, which they gave to Nurse Lilly, who marked them with the doctor's secret code, so no one except Dr. Lord would ever know which father had fathered which child or children. Did Nurse Lilly know? I don't know.

Anyway, my parents were worried, because of the way the doctor drank, and because of the dust that seemed to cover everything in his house. When my mother asked him about the dust, he tried to reassure her by telling her he washed the few glass implements needed for his work, and that so far none of the offspring produced in his house had been particularly dusty. As for his drinking, he defended himself, saying, ""What can a true man of science do in America today, where all the funding goes to the herd, and the lone man fends for himself, but drink?"

My parents went home. My father convinced my mother that he would love the child as though it were his own. That they would raise it together, and their love would grow on account of the child.

They went back to meet with the doctor one more time, this time in a cocktail lounge near his house, and said they would go ahead with the procedure.

That night, the night of the card game, my mother spent a good deal of time comforting my father, and they did a lot of low talking, that I couldn't hear, until I decided to wander off to bed. There was a little residual kissing and touching among us, and some time spent assuring me that my father had always loved me, even though I was not, strictly speaking, his son, and even if my sister had been born a couple of years after me, (much to their amazement) a true child of the two of them, and had thereby linked them in a strong union, which I, they told me, had failed to do in the first years of my life, although they had given me every opportunity. Still, I never made the grade. They would sit together and watch me playing in my play pen, or taking my first leaden steps, and they were filled with admiration for the workings of nature, in making children develop and change, and do this and that, but they never felt drawn together by the shared experience of being my parents. Instead, as Mom said with sadness, just having me around made them feel estranged from one another. They were happy and relieved when they got a woman to watch me, while they locked themselves in their room, watching television.

True union had not come to my parents until the birth of my sister.

Not that they had ever hated me, they said. Especially not Mom, who had after all put up fifty per cent of my genetic stake. It's just that the main fascination I held for them, so powerfully as to make them forget some of the other nuances of parental love altogether — namely, trying to see in my attributes the attributes of the man who was my biological father — the medical student or lawyer, or chess wizard, that anonymous donor of me — that man they had never met and did not know the name of, but a man who had been described to them in the most glowing terms, by Doctor Lord, that genius my parents loved to look for, so to speak, in me... I looked a certain way when carrots were placed in my mouth, I made a certain noise when I banged my head against the porcelain, maybe the brilliant doctor or oratorically flamboyant lawyer, and his wonderfully hidden genius-generating family had given me that look, or that particular skeletal resonance...

At first, it seemed to my mother that, amazingly enough, I was the spitting image of my father (by whom I mean the man who raised me, Mr. Stengrow). He agreed, at first. At first, they tell me, it seeemd a miracle had been given to them, a son in the image of the father who would raise and support him, even if he had not contributed any gametes to the lad. However, my father said the only important thing, as far as he was concerned, was that the two of them had a child to raise, and teach, a biological child of my mother, who was, my father said, the same person as he was, because doesn't it say in the Bible, husband and wife are one flesh?

They tell me those were good days in the history of our family. I don't remember them very well, except for the linoleum on the floor of my room. My recollections only go back to when I was about 5 or 6, maybe, and when I take myself through a mental review of those times, even the earliest I can remember, I think they must already have started that practice of theirs, of looking for the qualities of the unknown donor who was my biological father, in my qualities...

"Look," my father would say, pointing his finger at me, "he loves the mud!" Then, my Mom and Dad would look at one another, and if someone else were there, they'd say nothing. But if they were alone, or if they remembered later how I had loved the mud, one of them would be sure to say to the other one: "I wonder if the Donor is clean?"

"Anyone in your family a mud-lover?" my Dad would ask my Mom. She'd put her hand under her chin and squint her eyes. "None that I can recall," she'd say. Then they'd laugh together, fondly, thinking of the Donor, and the Donor's childhood, when, they were sure, he probably dove into mud at every slight opportunity.

Sometimes, my Mom told me, they used to praise the Donor. For example, when I got good grades in school, and when I beat up another boy because someone said he drew horses better than I did. My Dad got a kick out of that, partly because no one in his family had been in a fight for three or four generations, as far as anyone could remember, and because it pointed out the fact that I was so large. The largeness inherent in myself, which some might call "my" largeness, is one thing for which even now I thank Heaven, for it brought great happiness to my Dad, and some cause for satisfaction to my Mom. Much do I wish there had been more things about me that had brought them joy. I tried my best. But I was not originated rightly, and there was nothing I could do that ever could correct what had been made wrong in my beginnings. Maybe you've done better with your beginnings — you who will never read my story—I hope you have—As for me, my beginnings are up before me each morning, and they see me to sleep at night, softly tearing each day's creations, so that by the next morning I am back once again where I was, with them—my beginnings, my cold spark, the birth of the blues...

And sometimes, my Mom said, they would speak meanly, or make dirty jokes, about the Donor.

They sometimes felt he was a fool. After all, a man who gave away the seed of his loins for twenty-five or thirty bucks, never knowing or caring about the fate of his own offspring. My father used to suggest that the Donor would one day wake up and want to find all the children he had fathered in this disembodied way, but it would be too late. "The records are sealed. End of discussion!" my father would cry out triumphantly, making a grabbing motion with his hand that ended with the hand in a fist against his chest, like a Roman legionairre, secure in the knowledge that the Donor, my true father, would never find me, and would die tormented. All this, as I say, took place out of my earshot.

Years later, when my mother was telling me the story of those years, she said she had soon realized the habit of looking for the qualities of the anonymous Donor in my qualities, was not a healthy pasttime, and she could see the deleterious effect it was having on their marriage. She was happy when my sister was born, and they had something else to think about. She was happy when my father lost his job in a recession, and he had to search for a new one, because it gave them something else to occupy their minds.

Chapter 3.

The night my Mom
and Dad told me the story of my conception marked the birth of a new attitude on the part of both my parents toward me. From this night on, I was no longer really a part of the family.

It was only two days later that they said they needed my room for a sewing room. They said I would be able to live in the basement, though, and I would love it. My father said, with a laugh, "you'll have the run of the place."

"Except when I do the laundry, you'll have complete privacy," said my mother.

My father said, "This will be great for you, Reynold. Now, you'll be able to practice that damned hobby of yours all night if you want to, without bothering anybody."

"I don't think so, Dad," I said. "It's hard to get maximum use from a telescope in a windowless basement."

"You could get a new hobby," said my mother. "That's not the point."

She was right. The point was, we had all changed. They had come to see me as a stranger. And I had changed, too.

From that night on, I was determined to learn the identity of my true father, Our Anonymous Donor. Because now I knew he was there, written on my face and my physical features, and in my thoughts and deeds, but I couldn't see him. He was a shading over known things, but not himself a known thing, and therefore impossible to judge as to the extent of the shading. He was a hidden writing written through me... my true father, the Donor—He was off the books, like one of those day-workers you pay, but you don't want to pay their unemployment insurance, and you don't want anyone to know you even had the money to pay them, so they are off the books.

I wonder if my parents, while they were watching me and I was failing to unite them, (even though I was succeeding in providing them with many hours of wholesome fun looking for the True Dad shining through their son,) ever thought of the things you can inherit from your father, or your mother, that are not in the flesh at all, or even in the mind, or the spiritual qualities of yourself, but just words that have been said over the fates of your parents, or words that have been said over the fates of their parents—the blessings and curses earned by ancient people, or more recent people? And is there an inheritance called "Off the Books," and is it a curse or a blessing to inherit this? It seems that all my life I have been off the books. I have been seen but not recognized as having been seen—I have been the shadow too pale to show up on the x-ray, the meaningful breath too soft to feel on the sleeping face of the one I love.

I moved my things into the basement. My mother had cleaned it out for me, and it was nice, but it wasn't the same as my old room. I still ate dinner with my family, and for the most part, we all acted as though nothing had changed. One day my father and I were out in the front of the house, after dinner. He said, "You think you'll do well in your math exam on Tuesday?" and I said, "No problem."

He looked at me in a strange way, as though the sun were over my shoulder instead of his, and as though he was the one with the trouble seeing me instead of me being the one having trouble seeing him, which was the truth of the situation. He said, "I hope there are no hard feelings between us."

I said, "Of course not, Dad. You raised me, you fed and clothed me."

He said, "You'll always be my son. I'll always love you."

At this moment, my mother came out of the house, and we all stood together in the small vegetable garden my father has always kept there, from which all the residents of the condo were welcome to take vegetables. The earth was steaming up at us, along with the smells of tomatoes and peppers, hot, as though we were standing on a heated griddle in the sunset light, between the long shadows of the palm trees outside on Fourth Street. My mother put her arms around my father and me, and some people came along the street, and we called hello to them, and they said they were going to the movies on Santa Monica Boulevard, did we want to come? My mother said no, we were going in to have coffee in a minute. The sun was shining on her beautiful face. I kissed her cheek. My father clapped me on the back, reaching around from the other side of my mother. I knew I would always love these people, pioneers who had brought me into the world, settlers who were here in the world before me, and made a place for me. But still, the next day, I started to search for my other, my biological, father. My True Dad.

My parents told me that they had long ago lost track of Dr. Lord, and that they believed he was dead, or in Europe. I knew they were lying, but out of respect for them, I decided to leave them out of it, to search on my own.

I thought my best bet would be to read books and scientific journals, looking for Dr. Lord's name, and some account of his experiments, so I went to the UCLA library, and the main branch of the Los Angeles library, downtown. I couldn't find his name anywhere. I couldn't find any mention in the newspapers of his arrest. I went to the police department, and the office of the District Attorney. There was nothing. I enjoyed the feeling of driving around, searching, getting out of the car and having a building to go into and a reason for going into it. I enjoyed asking directions of the guards, and getting help from the librarians. I even told one of the librarians, a young woman with large brown eyes and curly brown hair at the UCLA Graduate Library, the purpose of my quest. After I told her, she cried with me, and held my hand on the yellow-wood table. She then went to work, checking every library in the state, it seemed to me, and staying after her work hours for a whole week, just to help me. But even she couldn't find any mention of Dr. Lord, or his work.

I also went through the newspapers from l970 on, jotting down the names of all the men in Los Angeles who were prominent in the fields of medicine, mathematics, law and academia. My mother and father had told me in no uncertain terms that my true father was a great genius—as a matter of fact, he had only qualified to be my true father because of his genius. The problem here was that there were so many geniuses, when you took into consideration all the endeavors of mankind, each having to itself its proper quota of geniuses, that the possible population of fathers for me quickly became too large ever to explore.

I drove around Burbank, all around the airport, because of the description my parents had given me of the place where Dr. Lord's house was supposed to be. When I told Mom and Dad, they got upset, and said I should forget about finding my biological father, because it wouldn't do me any good to find him anyway, and would only bring me misery. An hour later, my mother told me she thought they had made a mistake about the place where Dr Lord lived. She said it was opposite an airport, but not necessarily the Burbank private field. She thought it might have been further east, inland, in the Inland Empire. She was sad for me. She kissed my hands. She said she hoped I wouldn't make myself unhappy, searching for the Donor. Then she asked me if I had told anyone about the fact that I had been created through artificial insemination. I said I had only told the librarian. She got angry, and my father heard her, and he came in chewing on a turkey leg, and they both told me forcefully that I wasn't to tell anyone the facts of my conception. My father said my mother would be sent to jail if anyone knew. My mother cried. My father shook his head with a look of wisdom. "That's the sad thing," he said, looking at me with a look freighted with meaning, "because no matter what happens, I won't be in any trouble at all. I didn't do anything wrong, after all. But your mother did. She was the one that was artificially inseminated. She's the one that committed adultery."

My mother made a noise of protest, and looked at him. He said, "Sorry, it's true."

I felt terrible about it. The fact is, not only had I told the librarian about my condition, I had also made the mistake of telling my best friend at school, Marty Rothenberg. I had told him one day when I was feeling low, and he had told everyone else in a mood of high spirits, over the next two or three days. Kids were coming up to me in the cafeteria, or while I was crossing Pico to the Taco stand, and saying, "Hey, Reynold—are you feeling ok? Your eyes have kind of a glassy look," and then they would crack up. Or, they would ask me if I had a navel. A lot of their fathers were thinkers in think tanks up and down the Pacific Coast Highway, and in Malibu, so they didn't really have as hard a time believing the story of my conception and birth as the kids at another high school might have had. In a way I guess this made it easier for me. Still, I knew that soon I would have to leave school.

Then, one night I was supposed to go to the movies with Rothenberg, but when I got there, he drove up with his father, and they said they had to go on to the Cedars-Sinai, where Rothenberg's grandmother was lying sick. I looked again at the cards in the lobby advertising the film, and decided I didn't want to see it, after all. Instead, I walked home, very slowly, listening to the televisions in all the apartments along the way, and the sounds of people clearing up after dinner. When I got home, I went in the back door, and right to the kitchen to get a sandwich.

I heard my parents' voices through the kitchen door, and another voice, and before I opened the refrigerator door, I could hear my name, and I knew they were talking about me. Instead of opening the refrigerator door, which would have made noise, I stood in the dark and listened to the conversation in the living room.

"You never should have told him," said the stranger's voice, which was high and strained, like wind coming through the crack in a wall.

"It was my fault," said my father. "I lost my temper. I felt estranged from him, and I wanted to show I knew something he didn't. I feel like a fool."

"Oh, Doctor Lord," said my mother, "will he be able to adjust?"

So, this was Doctor Lord.

It didn't bother me that my parents had lied to me, and told me they were out of touch with the doctor. I knew they had done what they thought was best, for all of us. However, it was obvious from the things they were saying that throughout my entire life, my mother and father had been making regular, detailed reports to Dr. Lord, concerning everything from my appetite to my moods to the notes I made in my school notebooks when I was not writing my assignments. For example, Dr. Lord said at one point that I had seemed so happy when he had last observed me, "at the bowling alley on Pico." Then I knew why my parents had urged me to take up bowling in the first place, and why they had insisted on the three of us joining a family league, even though it was so out of character for them—especially, for my father, a man totally unathletic in every other respect.

I smiled at the thought of my father's selflessness—allowing himself to look ridiculous (as everyone agreed he did, every time we went bowling) for the good of science, and probably for my good, too.

Also, I found myself wondering whether the doctor had done his observing from another alley, or from the snack bar that overlooked the entire place from its raised platform. Or was there a camera set up in the crawl space over the alleys, or behind the alleys, to film me? I wondered if there were other artificially inseminated boys and girls, all living in this general area, whose parents also dragged them to the Pico Lanes one night of every month, for observation.

I gathered from their conversation, as I stood at the breakfast bar, that Dr. Lord had a girlfriend who was an Administrator at Santa Monica High School. This girlfriend had heard about the controversy over my origins. I'm not clear on whether or not the girl also knew about Dr. Lord's work, but for whatever reason, she had obviously thought I was worth mentioning to the doctor. He was very upset. He said he didn't know what the consequences would be, but as for himself, he intended to leave Los Angeles.

"Unfortunately," said the doctor sadly, "the current climate in the world of science is unfriendly toward the real pioneer."

"But you've given barren couples babies," said Dad.

"Yes," said the doctor, "and a generous spirit, such as you possess, will concentrate on that fact—the good a man has done—the families he's helped to complete. However, the sad state of the world is such that others will tend to dwell more readily on the unavoidable tragedies and errors that (any innovator will be glad to tell you) must precede even the most glorious new step in the scientific progress of mankind, ah, me—The babies who never got born—the few, and sadly remembered women who—" and here his voice became so low that I'm sure even my parents, sitting directly in front of his face, could not have heard what he said next—Then, a bit louder: "They'll fixate on the fact that I guaranteed geniuses, and their envy—the non-genius press, the non-genius public, the non-genius agencies of government—will cause them to find every possible fault with what I, we, have done... But still," he picked up volume here, feeling better about what he was about to say than about that which he had already said, "still, one day we'll all be able to tell the things we know, to a humble and waiting world. I'm sure of it. However, until then, I think it would be best for all of us, if we changed our places of residence. In the future, I don't know exactly when, you will hear from me. I will write, and send instructions on how we may continue our acquaintanceship, and continue the vital work of observing young Reynold, how he develops in the months and years to come. Until then, good luck, dear friends—"

Then, I carefully looked out between the plantation shutters that separated the kitchen from the living room. I had to lean painfully across the breakfast bar, and I felt the doorknobs of the cabinet push into my groin. I saw my parents standing with a short, plump man in a brown tweed jacket with leather patches on the elbows. Awkwardly, my mother walked forward and embraced the doctor. Then, my father did the same. They said they didn't see how they could leave Los Angeles on such short notice, but that they would be sure to keep his secret, and not admit to anyone how I had been born.

He said, "The press has its ways—" but they reassured him. He said, "The police, the FBI..." but they said there was no way in the world anyone could get them to betray him. My father (Mr. Stengrow, that is) said, "When the world is populated with geniuses, they will appreciate what you have done."

Dr. Lord sighed, fumbled with his fingers in a twirling gesture I have never been able to duplicate, and said, "I sincerely hope so, my dear Mr. Stengrow. The problem is, geniuses, just by the fact of their existence, are a standing insult to the rest of mankind. This is the one problem I never counted on. I am afraid that my life's work, when all the facts are known, will have been wasted, wasted."

"No!" said my mother.

"Never!" said my father.

They walked him to the door.



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