For Robert Blake’s Sake

“It’s always been the same thing—the old have to be killed by the young.”

—Robert Blake, In Cold Blood

“It’s always been the same thing—the young have to be killed by the old.”

—Robert Blake, Lost Highway

I was the youngest, and my father, Robert Blake the first, made it a practice to never directly address me—using either my mother when she was out on bail or asking my sister when the situation became too urgent for someone not to speak. He would say things like, “Lenore, could you tell Robert to ‘shut the hell up’ and to ‘never do what he just did in my presence again?’ ” All the while he’d be mussing up my hair with his hand like he was putting out a cigarette with his shoe: “Huh, Lenore, hon, could you tell him if he does that again I’ll ‘remove his kidney while he’s sleeping’ and ‘sell it for lunch money next week?’ Could you dear, because I would myself, but you can see what I’m doing here, can’t you?”

He always said it was silly and a little absurd to talk to me like that, but then again, so was the experience of bringing a child into the world and trying to tell it what and what not to do.

At dinner parties, during the six months of my life that I was certifiably cute, he would farm out anecdotes and punch lines to me by passing notes to the women he found attractive or flagging down servants carrying martinis. He gave me a walkie-talkie when I was 7 and made people talk to me only through that until I was almost 12. Sometimes it would just be him hiding in a different room and disguising his voice when he couldn’t find anyone else to do it for him.

A few hours before he died when I was in college he wrote a note to me on a paper airplane and paid a male nurse $50 to deliver it by hand to my dorm room at 3 a.m.:

“Come quick. Stop. Terribly urgent. Stop. Reports of my recovery overblown and optimistic. Stop. Let me gird my loins with the sight of your face one last time. Stop. No, really.”

When I showed up, he tried to act like he didn’t see me standing in the doorway on the other side of the room. He tried to act like I was catching him right in the middle of something, something that, if I were quiet and kept my head down long enough, I would be able to spy on it too, seeing a secret pocket of the same secret thing: like a ritual or underground initiation, Black Mass or the Masons—my persistent Pappy Blake promising me that, for behaving, he’d show me something no one else had ever seen, something of which Lenore or mom wouldn’t even know what to think:

He kept leaning over the side of his bed, like he’d dropped his bedpan out the window or something, with his back to me for the longest time. It looked broken, like chipped teeth biting crookedly down on his spine while the rest of his body scrambled, all of him trying to pull something I couldn’t see up into bed with him. And it occurred to me that I had never seen my father without his shirt. Not without smoking jacket and pipe or sleeveless cotton top before bed. Never not-wearing the heavy burlap shop apron mixed with sawdust or yard-work denim. He was like the father mannequin in the Sears window—changing for days of the week and seasons but little else, a kind of clotheshorse trying on roles for me, business casual, Robert, or maybe you prefer evening wear: “Tell him he would, Lenore, say, ‘You would prefer evening wear, Robert, wouldn’t you?’ Say it now, now and just like that.”

His shoulder blades scraped against each other as he started to turn—shovel heads hanging too close in his shed—and his body kept clenching, pitted and stretched thin, going translucent in places. I didn’t know if disease could do that to him, collapse him from the inside, layer after layer run through and spit out its mouth. But in a perverse way, his sickly moving body reminded me of Lenore, the private language she and I had when we were kids, able to tell each other that things would be okay with our hands, sign language or tapping Robert Blake code in discrete places on our bodies when he was around and wouldn’t allow us to otherwise speak.

And then, still bent over and not facing me like he was, I heard him say something; I realized, with nobody else in the room, he must be finally talking directly to me. He popped back up onto the bed quick, all of a sudden, like an animal—like that—and I didn’t sit down because I saw what he was holding:

He had a dirty gun-sack with my grandfather’s gun in it, the over-under looking just like it did the summer I found it wrapped in newspaper in their bedroom closet. His two-ply, double-insulated orange hunting jacket was draped over the window sill where he’d shed it, but he was still wearing its accompanying duck-ear hunting cap. Like usual, he’d stretched and tied the hat’s flaps in such a way so they either covered or cast in a shadow his entire face: since we were kids it had been his practice to regularly, through screens and subtle touches—long scarves or concealer spots—keep his face a secret. It was the way he liked to treat us: drawing our attention to what was wrong only to forbid us on its faceto make sure that we knew that he knew, that there was a question and something was off but we couldn’t ever expect to ask what:

He held the gun with two hands, palms up, arms out like I was a king and it was my scepter—like he was knighting me with what was left of his body, giving me my birthright or something even though he would’ve never done that in real life. And he had this mock humility he’d never shown me either, looking down, an embarrassed third-grader on stage for the Christmas play or Springtime Jubilee, except he was in bed, so he was staring at his stomach, maybe wondering why it looked so strangely inflated, pot-bellied like a starving Ethiopian’s even though he was solidly mid-American.

He was still talking, like we’d been interrupted in the middle of a conversation, like we’d been having the same one our whole lives, passing notes back and forth in class that turned out to be our long names when we were done:

“…and you know I always took what your ex-mother gave me and made what I could. You know I was the only thing that kept you kids boxed up and ready to move like a good father should.

“And I may never have said it, but that was because I knew you were never really listening…you little dunderhead—”

I had to grab the gun that he’d held up with his arms the whole time because he was going purple now and not so steady, and I was afraid it might go off if he dropped it. Except I realized all of sudden that everything was happening in reverse, not like I thought at all. Because when I took the gun, it dropped him; like he was a coat hanging off a hook unscrewed unexpectedly from the wall. He wasn’t giving me the gun because I had had it the whole time:

“Tell Robert he’s got it all wrong, and I’m sick of holding my tongue just so I don’t hurt his feelings.”

His body started balling up in places where it shouldn’t have been able to, a sinkhole swallowing itself, dollar bills crumpling up in somebody’s fist after sidewalk bait and switch. And as I felt myself starting to shrink—somehow suddenly too short to see him over the chart hanging at the end of his bed—all I could think was: “Well, look at what you finally went and did.