essay

Love and Mercy

By Mark Sam Rosenthal
Share
Love and Mercy
Mark Sam Rosenthal performing on stage

I never hit my father. But when he was dying, I came close.

I know: it sounds like something straight out of a trailer park. You can almost hear NASCAR engines revving in the background as a passel of children play make-believe with a crystal meth pipe Mommy dropped on the linoleum.

But I don’t come from a trailer park. (I did once drive a trick back to his mobile home at dawn one Christmas Eve —Happy Birthday, Jesus!—but I was only playing at trash.)

The truth is I grew up in Baton Rouge on a pleasant cul-de-sac of individually-built homes that do not roll. With delusions of faded Southern grandeur I even gave our house a name, which never caught on with the rest of the family: Twin Elm. I was a middle-class aristocrat, so it took me by surprise when I found myself almost punching my dad as he lay dying.

His dying took a year and thirteen days, and in the end we capped his life off with a simple stone. A three-by-six-foot flat gray granite marker, flush with the ground, inscribed with his name, the dates, and a short verse from the sixth chapter of Micah: “To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

These are the answers to the question “What does the Lord require of you?”, which is in the Bible, but not carved on the stone. Probably because we are cheap. I mean, Mom and my brother and I may have been Methodists, but Dad was Jewish.

There are two things I remember from the day we put Dad in the ground: the prayers in Hebrew that I didn’t understand, and Cousin Ian explaining them.

What were we doing—my brother, my mother and I—in the Jewish Cemetery on Baton Rouge’s North Street? It all felt like a service for someone whose son I didn’t seem to be.

Sometimes I didn’t know how we were related. Dad gave me my dark Semitic features and the overabundance of body hair that I spent my 20s learning to accept. But our souls felt far apart. I mean, my father sold industrial insulation for a living and genuinely liked the movie Sister Act so much that he bought the soundtrack. My father was a Republican, for Christ’s sake.

I had accidentally come out to him and Mom a couple of years before he died. I left an incriminating letter inside the phone book, and Mother found it while looking up the number for Honey-Baked Ham. (At Twin Elm, even the drama was well-catered.) Dad took me out for a pitcher of beer and said that nothing I could ever do or be would make them not love me, which I appreciated, but couldn’t quite believe. There was a lot that he and Mother didn’t know.

Like, I used to dream that Southern Living magazine would one day feature Twin Elm as its home of the month. I had a four-pack of Riunite wine coolers hidden in the spare-tire well of my Plymouth. And senior year of high school I walked out of that movie The Fisher King halfway through because earlier that night I had just sucked a dick for the first time.

After being outed by the phone book I took to the night and explored all that Baton Rouge had to offer its gays. That basically amounted to a bar called Argon. It was a low-slung, cinder-block hovel named after an element in the periodic table, a place whose science- inspired slogan was “It’s a gas!” But I was determined to be proud of going there openly, and I kept no secret from my parents about where I went. Pride had arrived at Twin Elm!

Once after an Argon outing, I made a big joke about seeing Greg Gainor there. Greg was a friend of my mom and dad’s; he hadn’t been anywhere near the bar—that night, or probably ever. He was a married anesthesiologist, and his wife wrote an advice column for the local paper. (Perhaps you’ve read “Ask Elaine?” You should. Marvelous tips!) Anyways, Greg was a respected citizen with four of Baton Rouge’s biggest crepe myrtles in his yard…and two of the city’s gayest nuts in his pants. We all silently suspected he liked boys, but I was really pushing the envelope by saying it out loud. Our little swamp world was simply not one in which surfaces were peered beneath, even if that surface had once included Greg Gainor drunkenly pawing me at a Mardi Gras ball while dressed as Cupid in a pink padded body stocking.

My father wasn’t laughing at my joke. A couple of hours later he asked me privately if I’d really seen Greg at the bar. Come on, Dad—Greg at Argon? I was kidding. But Dad seemed disproportionately frightened of this guy’s secret. As if that surface I was dangerously getting close to was something closer to us both. As if there were a secret also in the shadows cast by twin elm trees.

 

Sam Mark Rosenthal and his dad.

Mark Sam Rosenthal and his dad.

 

This was all so long ago that I wonder: could there ever have been a time when I knew nothing about my father’s hidden life? A time before I knew we were like each other, sharing this infrared reality with Greg Gainor and the other men in darkened parks?

Yes, there was. But something in the way Dad asked those questions that night turned a light on in my mind, and I knew.

So when Dad got so strangely sick the next year, I was afraid before they tested for the first thing it could be, that they’d have to end up testing for the last thing it could be. And that was what it was.

He was positive, and they didn’t give him long.

Right after the diagnosis Mom says she had Dad swear to her on a stack of Bibles that there had been no man-on-man shenanigans. But we couldn’t have had more than a couple of Bibles in the house, which hardly constitutes a stack. He made up some story about a bleeding black bum he’d helped once in the refinery parking lot, how there must have been some blood contact—even though everyone knows you don’t get HIV from touching blood at Exxon. There are many other ways to die that Exxon undeniably facilitates, but bleeding-black-bum-AIDS is kind of far-fetched. People seemed to buy it, though. People who needed to buy it. So Mother went along.

Dad pulled the Bible stunt later on with me, too, placing his hand on a gideon’s  in a hotel room in Birmingham when I went with him to see a specialist. But despite the written presence of the Lord in Dad’s hand, the exercise seemed godless. Or I felt sure any god present would discreetly have excused himself in that instant—maybe moseyed down the hall to the ice machine—in order not to listen to my father lie, or to hear me lie back and say that I believed him, to see me look away when I said it. Dad had once told me nothing I could ever do or be would make him not love me, but we both sensed the same might not hold true vice versa. So we lied to each other to keep our family together, until it was gone.

When I look back, it isn’t him or me I see—just bad actors in a true-crime TV reenactment. We knew the truth, but told each other something else and watched Late Night with David Letterman. In the morning the maid changed the sheets like we were never there.

But that’s not when I almost hit him.

It was his last summer. I was home from college— I took a job bussing tables at a local Creole seafood chain restaurant. After dinner shifts I got stoned with some of the waiters in the old Highland Road cemetery. We held séances on top of the tombstones and seemed to communicate quite well with the spirit of Aurelius B. Hodges, who died in 1854 and told us he’d been gay, too! The deaths of antebellum strangers were much more digestible than the one then happening in my parents’ bedroom. And I preferred to linger in the past tense of the graveyard, with ghosts who would admit to being what they were.

I could admit who I was. I hadn’t kept myself a secret—at least not after my parents found the letter in the phone book. OK, so I wasn’t so out at first, but at least I hadn’t created an entire family in the service of deception. Alike or not, I hated Dad for how he’d strung along my mother, who was on the phone crying that afternoon with some health insurance customer service representative. There were so many medicines to keep track of, and someone somewhere hadn’t kept track of one of them. Now we were out and it wasn’t covered and Mother was in tears, scaring some poor girl in Omaha.

What I meant to say was: “We don’t want any more medicine. We don’t want this dying to last any longer. What we really don’t want is my father. He has caused enough trouble.” But all I said was “Give me the phone.” Mother swatted me away.

Our house was U-shaped, and I pounded a quick semi-circle back around to the room where my shriveled father lay. Mother was still on the phone, the patio now in between us to absorb the shock as I came at him. I raised my hand, he dropped into the pillow, and I slapped the bedspread inches from his thigh. I‘d meant to hit him, but a force-field of fatherhood seemed to hover in the air. I raised my hand again, and again it only came down on the bedspread, hard, just a hair’s width from his knee.

“Die! Die! Just go ahead and die!” I beat the mattress all around him because that was all that I seemed able to do. He shook with each impact. The bed shook, and the absurd carvings of tobacco leaves on its four mahogany posts shook too. Then I called my father what he’d surely lived his whole life trying never to be called: “You fucking, fucking faggot!” Because that hurt him like it couldn’t hurt me. I was honest. I was free. And I was spinning out of the room like a tornado. No remorse. No direction.

Years after Dad died, I ended up alone in Palm Springs one weekend at a resort run by a gay porn racket. It was a place where X-rated videos were shot on the pool deck and men cavorted in Speedos in a bamboo pleasure maze with a waterfall. The outdoor vending machines sold soft drinks, pretzels, lube, and poppers.

It was no place for the belle of Twin Elm! But I badly wanted to bed one of the porn stars. I just thought it would boost my morale to walk on the same plane of sexiness as they did. I found one cruising me in the bamboo maze and was elated. Brock. He had a real name but I didn’t want to know it.

“I just moved from Ohio,” he said. “Do you like painkillers?”

“Sure.”

“Which ones?”

I didn’t know any names because I don’t know if I’d ever taken painkillers. He pulled some out of his pocket and I swallowed them. I was such a hard sell.

We went to my room, smoked some of his marijuana and he began to talk about needing a car.“I found a sweet ride in San Diego,” he said. “I’ve almost got enough for it.”

“Great! Let’s take our clothes off!”

“That’s why I’m out here in Palm Springs this weekend, just trying to get the rest of the money together.”

“Uh-huh!”

“That’s what I’m doing here. Just trying to make some money.”

“Wait. Are you trying to make some money right now?”

“Yeah. Are you into it?”

“Well. I just thought…”

“Are you into it?”

“Well…my goodness, Brock… I……I…”

So this was who I was. Not a proud paragon of gay sexual liberation, but the kind of lonely fool who ends up candy-eyed in a painfully peach room, the dupe of some strung-out prostitute from Ohio.

“…How much?”

“Two hundred.”

I left him on the bed watching porn and drove my rental car to a bank branch that, like everything in Palm Springs, seemed to sit on acres of land. A wide expanse of artificially green grass receded into the black desert night around me as I stood alone in the fluorescent glow of the outdoor ATM. It was the quietest transaction I’d ever made. The faint, tinny sound of the keypad. The whir of bills landing in the metal slot. Everything evaporated. In the silence, I thought of my father. We had buried the specifics of his secrets with him, but I had always imagined some of them looked like this. Standing alone at a strange ATM. A surly guy in a cheap hotel room and two hundred dollars rotting on the dresser. Sad hours with lonely, badly-lit people. I leaned my head against the cash machine but was too high to cry. It beeped a long time before I took my card back.

I got back to my room and Brock was sprawled out shirtless, waiting for me like another secret I’d need to keep. I hovered over the bed. Then I asked him to leave. He hopped up and out like he didn’t care because he didn’t. He wanted that car, and I wanted to die. I sat by the pool for a long time alone, watching the illuminated water ripple like the membrane of some giant phosphorescent jellyfish.

You fucking, fucking faggot.

The night before my father died, I’d asked to be alone with him. He was curled up, comatose. I’d sat on the edge of the hospital bed, and I didn’t want to hit him. Now that he’d be dead in a few hours I did not want him to die. Because whether he had lied to us or told us the truth was suddenly less important than the fact that he would no longer be on this earth to do either.

I went and visited his grave alone last year on the Fourth of July. It was hot, but not as miserable as it should have been that time of year in Baton Rouge. I parked my mother’s Toyota up on the little hill of the Jewish Cemetery, which is stranded in a ghetto that will never be gentrified. I kept glancing back at the car, wondering if I should have rolled the windows up and closed the sunroof. I was the only living person in sight, except for a couple ambling silently along the nearby train tracks.

In the nine years since Dad had died, I’ve never known what to do at the cemetery. On visits home I’d gone alone, or not gone at all for a year or more. Mother is mad at Dad and never goes. When he was sick they bought two plots so she could slide in next to him someday. But now she says we can’t put her there. It’s sad; she would have been the only McCarty there, with all the Blitzers and the Sternbergs…and the Rosenthals.

I still have no idea what proper Jewish cemetery etiquette decrees. But I remember at the end of Schindler’s List, all those people—you know, the Jews—piled rocks on that guy’s grave. So once I brought some gravel from a bag Mom kept in the carport. She used it for potting patio plants. It felt a little off the mark.

What I do know about being Jewish is that it’s kind of like being gay, though I’m sure there are some big-time Jews who would be bothered to hear it put that way. Seriously, though—you don’t choose to be either, and deep down many people find both situations distasteful. Somehow my father had wound up being both, but married to a Methodist to help him hide. An exile from his own soul twice over.

I found Dad and the empty spot beside him where Mother wouldn’t go. I knelt on the flat stone and bowed my head. Hi, Dad. I laughed a minute. It’s weird to talk to a grave. But I did it.

Nine years he’d been gone, and nine years I’d kept going. I graduated, Dad. I moved to New York. I went to Peru. I have two cats and an apartment of my own that you will never see. I wish you could see it. Maybe you can see it.

The couple on the train tracks plodded on, unconcerned with me as I bent my head to the stone and finally cried. Dad… How can I make this right, what happened? I mean…I’m a faggot too, and it’s OK. I don’t know that I’m doing it any better than you did. It’s hard, it’s just plain hard, goddammit. What do you want me to do, Dad?

I opened my eyes and saw an answer. One perhaps of many, but it was the one I saw. “Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God.” Mercy toward my father, mercy toward us both. That is all the Lord requires.

I decided then and there that I will take the plot next to Dad when the time comes for me to go. Even if I’m not a real Jew like Cousin Ian; even if I don’t speak a word of Hebrew. I’ll let the ground swallow me up, and no one visiting a hundred years from now will know the story that passed between us, father and son. The things I said and the things he didn’t. The ways we lived our lives that were so different from each other, and the things we might have done that made us so desperately alike. It won’t matter anymore. Because in a cemetery, all of our stories are mercifully lost at last, and we become dates, an inscription, and conjecture. A spot for some inebriated séance. Just a mystery that goes unexplored by two people passing slowly on the train tracks on the Fourth of July.

10568797_10152620396018618_6853924905336021430_n

 

This essay is adapted from the 2006 stage show Love Mercy.

About the Author

Called “one of the city’s great comedic storytellers” (Time Out New York), Mark Sam is a staff writer/producer/director for Comedy Central and is managed by Kara Welker at Generate. He is also a writer/performer with several plays and solo shows to his credit, including his one-man off-Broadway “Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire” and “I Light Up My Life: The Mark Sam Celebrity Autobiography.” Mark Sam has performed improv comedy with the Upright Citizens Brigade and People’s Improv Theater and performed for two years with the New York company of “Point Break Live!” He is a graduate of Northwestern University and a seventh-generation Baton Rougean. His greatest comic inspirations are his mother, grandmother, and all the ladies of the Baton Rouge Junior League. 

Recent Recollections

oral history

This is His Obituary

Maura and Margrethe Lauber’s father’s death wasn’t memorialized in a local paper when he died in 1989. Twenty-seven years later, the two sisters give their father the remembrance he didn’t have.

This interview is provided by StoryCorps.

 

Read More
interview

Living with Cookie

Max Mueller, the only child of downtown New York’s cult icon Cookie Mueller, remembers their bohemian life in the West Village—and his mother’s last days.

 

Read More
oral history

The Photos

Twenty years after finding pictures that held the answer to her father’s mysterious past, Sade Taft embarked on a journey to reconnect with his family.

Read More