BEGGING THE QUESTION
My father died with some money left, but still he seemed to have spent up everything before he left, burned through all that was worthwhile inside of him. Given how he lived most of his life, it seemed improbable that he'd die in such a state—and I began to think maybe there hadn't been any mistake at all, that maybe some other plan had been in the works.
To help see if you're an addict, they want you to answer a few questions, a "self-test." Have you ever felt remorse after gambling? Or, Do you often gamble until your last dollar is gone? The questions are the same on all the pamphlets, just substitute the words to fit the problem. For the alcoholic, Do you often drink until the last drop is gone? For my father, the crackhead, Do you smoke until the last crumb is burnt? Addiction is addiction is addiction, they say. After seeing enough, I started to believe it. When I lived in Vegas, the questions on the GA pamphlets were no different than on those at my father's NA meetings. I started to think there could be some grand, unifying theory that explains addiction, perhaps by route of explaining the addict.
Some theory propped up by thousands of smaller laws. I can vouch for how one of these laws works in casinos. You could call it the Law of Losses, the Loser's Law, the Gambler's Quandary, something quaint. Go to GA and they know all about it. As long as you're winning, you assume you'll keep winning: you reach for the dice, roll after roll. If you're losing you need to recoup losses: you go back for the dice, loss after loss.
Take your observations and you could make laws out of these, too. The probability of a man taking another hit, staying high, is directly proportional to the extent to which he is already high; the probability of an addict relapsing is proportional to the length of time he has been clean. Not only laws could you make, but axioms, theorems about the person in question, special theories and general theories, a whole system, like a machine, a city you build with tin cans, and as you watch him you keep building, modifying accordingly, snipping off what is wrong and tacking up tinfoil over holes—and if you can believe it all you might believe you are beginning to grasp what is happening.
But you can't start without a supposed law, some rule about who the person is that lets you pile more ideas on top, a premise on which you assemble the tin city. Yes, I would answer the pamphlet. I play until it's just receipts left in my wallet. I open my wallet two, three times to make sure—so, I would ask the pamphlet, what does that tell you about me? It would make sense that if you pinned down the one rule that always held true, you could proceed. If you said, You will lose your last dollar—if this were the rule—you could begin to see the root of your problems. If one will necessarily lose his last dollar, then he must want this somehow, and once he understands this as his aim, he can begin to see how the city works.
Going over the Ben Franklin into the Philadelphia, maybe to a Phillies game, I asked my father once why we had to pay a toll. Because someone has to pay the toll takers, he said. And for years he got a kick out of it, his own humor, every time we crossed. Ha! Why do we have to pay? Otherwise who would pay the toll takers! And then who would take our toll?
He was amused by problems of logic, and by theories and laws, especially the point at which a theory turns into law—loved appealing to the authority of a principle whose name started with The Law of. For example, the Law of Averages, one of his favorites. I don't know what the law states exactly, but from hearing him talk about it, I know it has something to do with winning and losing. Eventually the average will surface, and so the winner (say, the house) bets on the average. There may be abnormalities in the beginning, but do it enough times, for enough years, and the average will prevail, the house will make money.
I can't imagine him throwing bills onto the green felt—he never gambled in his life—but as a kid I could have thought of at least one less likely addiction. And then I think I'm looking at this from the wrong end. That regardless of his early years, the law of averages would prevail, that it had to end like this, that for whatever reason, this was his average. And if this were the case, if he were born to lose his last dollar, hit bottom, when would this happen? He needs to hit bottom before he gets better, they told me, as if dictated by law—but what if for the rest of his life he just kept losing that last dollar? What if this were his own personal law, some hidden nature, finally blooming?
So it went in his final years, me watching him lose and coming up with theories about who he was and which laws applied. Then I would go home and fix the model city, pin up theories over previous ones, steam whistles and smoke stacks sprouting all over, an industrial jungle. The whole thing, built on the idea that he was still somehow related to the person he used to be, and so eventually I see the joke of it. I step back and it's like some Dr. Seuss machine—propellers rigged with pulleys and bike chains, diffendoofers and fuzzy-fistles on stilts and pogo sticks playing tubas and trombones. Then the steam whistles overheat and rivets blow and propellers fly off, the whole thing dismantling, disunifying in midair, atomizing into the universe.
The joke of it, goes my brain. You can make hypotheses about what went wrong, but what if it was only that one law that ever held true, that had been pulling him all the while—because every popsicle stick you glue to your theory of what went wrong only morphs into a cartoon. What if the only thing you can confirm is that the last dollar will be lost—what if this is the only law any of your theories can turn into?
I remember the feeling in Vegas, opening my wallet time after time to confirm that indeed there were no more dollars, that the last had been lost, and I had to wonder: if this were happening so many times, maybe this was what I wanted somehow. And perhaps what my father wanted, too. If this is the only reliable outcome, then it's the only possible goal of everything that precedes it.
In some ways it is like asking a boy why he watches cartoons. The boy could say, Because it's funny. But why is it funny? Because the coyote always thinks he's so close but then falls off the cliff. But if you know what's going to happen, doesn't that ruin the fun? And he would say no, and there would remain only one reason the cartoon is funny: Coyote loses.
I think of his logic now when paying tolls, this humor of my father's long before he began to lose. Why do we have to pay? Otherwise who would pay the toll takers! He could hardly contain his laughter at the circularity, the idea of paying for people to take his money. Of course, the idea only begs the question of why the toll-taker needs to be there in the first place, but it was funny to him that in some world maybe the logic made sense.
I never asked my father why he started, or why he kept at it for so long, I think because something told me that he didn't know the answer himself. It would be like asking a gambler, Why do you gamble? And he would think, Why do I gamble?And I would answer for him silently, Because you will lose your last dollar. And then to my father, the same question, and as it echoed in his head, Why do I smoke?—silently, again, so as not to disturb the theories: otherwise how would you lose your last dollar?
The two bridges connecting New Jersey to Philadelphia are the Ben Franklin and Walt Whitman. As I grew up my father always told me the name of the bridge we were taking, though I never could tell them apart. In those days they were just names, and names only of bridges. Still, when I hear Franklin's name I think of the bridge before the founding father. One of the fondest memories I have of my father is driving with him for what seemed miles over these yawning steel structures, not knowing what bridge we were on but knowing that he knew.