Hubert Ernst Becker, the man who’d married my mother over the fiercest opposition I could muster from the third grade, passed away last spring—his body devoured by a cancer that shocked all three of us in both its swiftness and its capacity to inflict suffering. On January 1st he and Mom had ridden sixty miles of Florida bike paths. On March 1st he was spending his fourth night in a Tampa hospital awaiting another round of tests. On May 1st he was gone. And the thing about all of that is, there would’ve been a time when I’d have received the unfolding news with little short of glee. What am I saying, there would’ve been a time when I’d have popped popcorn.
Throughout my early childhood I had known him only as Mister Becker: Chelsea Yacht Club’s barrel-chested “rear admiral,” the duties for which apparently included snarling invective at the kids left ashore while our parents sailed the turbid Hudson below Poughkeepsie. One spring Saturday it would be the turn of the gangly young Reynolds girl, found climbing across the top of the swing set; the next it would be the menacingly fat Strickland kid, caught poking holes in the sides of soda cans; the Saturday after that it would be the blabber-mouthed runt, far out on the treacherous breakwater with a hefty rock in my arms, Mr. Becker bellowing at me from shore to put it down. “Drop it right now or you’ll be eating it for dinner, ya’ little monster!” he’d yelled in his customary Bronx/Jersey accent, and I—rattled as much by the depth of my own terror—had reflexively complied, depositing the rock squarely onto my shoeless big toe.
This would be my first enduring impression of the man I came to address as “Huey,” a man who calibrated his indignation to fir the circumstance the way a water cannon might calibrate itself to douse a match. A man who dressed funny and talked funny and chewed funny and even smelled funny. A man who implicitly expected you to know the meaning and appropriate audiences for such phrases as “fart in a trance,” (bad), “stepped in shit” (good, apparently), “pissin’ in the wind,” (noble but bad), and “go pound salt in your ass” (bad until he realized he could run-up the score by suggesting I might enjoy it).
Had I properly understood the source of all of this permanently-aggrieved [End Page 152] crankiness—had I appreciated the severity with which his hardscrabble background and nightmarish first marriage would narrow his range of feeling toward me and my own presumptive future, I might have reacted differently to his new status as de facto role model. By which I mean that instead of settling for open hostility at the idea, I might have explored the tensile strength of the nearest plate-glass window. “You try leaving this house again without a belt on,” he’d informed me on Day Two of our new living arrangement, “and so help me God I’ll kick your pansy little momma’s-boy ass so hard you won’t need a belt for all the swelling.” And so—give or take—it proved to be.
Then again, as the yappity son of an IBM’er, my own exhausting personality in those days had bordered on caricature in its turn. Sit me at a dining table for more than a few minutes—with or without a gently cooling plate of food—and you were pretty-well guaranteed to hear something grasping, self-serious, fifteen decibels too loud and, above all, false. “You know that kid from down the street?” I casually announced one memorable spring evening in my eighth year. “Well, he started a story in reading class with the words, Once Upon A Time, and the poor guy spelled Upon with a ‘U,’ instead of with an ‘A’! I mean, can you believe that? Guy should’ve learned how to spell that word years ago,” I said. I’d even sat back a little in my chair afterward: pleased with myself, not...