Hitler's Promise

Karl O’Conner wanted his father’s advice about his career. He drove to the old man’s farm in New Jersey. Karl O’Conner was thirty now. He had practiced labor law on the union side in Detroit for two years and worked on an internship at a newspaper in the nation’s capitol for the last ten months. His father, Brian O’Conner, is partially paralyzed from a stroke. He gets about in a wheel chair with a motor. He cannot move the left side of his face and the skin there hangs slackly as if made of tiny, gray, tear-shaped bags filled with water. He controls his left arm and leg only haltingly.

He lives on a truck farm with one of Karl’s half sisters and her husband. He owns it and they work it and live by him. He bought it with carefully scraped savings when that land was cheap and held onto it through the ups and downs of his life by luck and by tenacity. He works there too: he feeds the chickens, collects the eggs, cleans and services with his good arm various machines, anything to keep working.

All his life he has believed that he meant something because of his work. He was born in an Irish Catholic working-class neighborhood in Rhode Island where he half absorbed the intonations of County Cork. He has done several things well. He has been a longshoreman, a seaman, a ship’s mate, a truck driver, the leader of a large wildcat strike, and, when the bosses and the union black balled him, a parking-lot attendant.

He was once a powerful man, able to move men and women. Karl went to his father because the old man knew about success. But they always busted him down in the end. Some blackness in his father also attracted Karl, some tarry rightness about how they had always busted him down in the end.

The elder O’Conner’s relations with women were extended, bitter struggles for mastery within the rules of propriety, which always broke down in a draw. Karl was born when his father was 45 and still living with Karl’s mother during the strike. Karl remembered seeing his father speak from a big television set with a small screen. He remembered also the armed guards at the house. He remembered also his father’s pride in being able to maneuver huge rigs within inches of a loading ramp in a single graceful arc.

He might die at any time. That was another reason Karl came. Brian had broken with The Church, joined the Socialist Labor Party, the Communist Part, the Teamsters Union, left them, married three times, last to a Jewish woman, Karl’s mother, and divorced each. “I’ll die on my own feet,” he said.

They were talking in the farm kitchen, the old man wearing an ancient tweed jacket tattered at the sleeves, gabardine slacks that covered his legs where they lay unreconciled in the wheel chair, and cracked leather wing-tip shoes. Karl wore stone-ground khaki slacks with cuffs and a button fly, cross trainers, and a blue broadcloth shirt with  netted vents. A summer shower grayed the windows

The old man was peeling potatoes with a jack knife. He can not rest idle. With the hand of his bad arm he braced each potato against the faucet beside the sink while he peeled it with his good hand. It was like watching a circus trick; Karl could not take his eyes off it, wondering constantly if the whole arrangement would slither apart, the potato and peel scatter to the floor and the old man cut himself.

“What brought you up here then,” the old man said.

“I have to tell you about something I did,” Karl answered.

“Tell me how your work is faring,” the old man said.

“At the first of the fiscal year I have to choose whether to pursue a journalism career or go back to lawyering.”

The old man grunted. “And tell me why, then, you ever gave up the work you had in Detroit?” he said. They had not seen each other since Karl went to Washington.

“Why do you think?” Karl said.

“I think it was another of your mother’s ways to be sending you to school forever,” the old man said.

“No, it was my idea. I never spoke of it to her until I came to Washington.” His mother lived in Baltimore now.

“Then it is more of your hippie stuff. I want to hear no more tales of your hippie stuff.”

“I was hardly born when there were hippies.” Karl said.

“It is still hippie stuff.”

“It was because of a girl...a woman.”

“Was it a woman or a girl, then?” his father insisted. Karl knew that if he answered “girl” the rules would oblige him to protect her innocence.

“Woman,” Karl said.

His father grunted and braced another spud against the faucet.

“She works for the EPA,” Karl began, “She came to Detroit to collaborate in forcing an asphalt plant to admit to on-site inspection of their gaseous effluent.”

“The gas-ee-oos-eh-flu-ant” Brian mouthed. What kind of a bird is that?”

Karl did not want to help him at that moment. He wanted to get clear to his story. But he paused and patiently explained.

“You cannot move goods without asphalt,” his father, the trucker, replied.

“I respect where you’re coming from,” Karl said, “but you cannot have the internal combustion engine and clean air.”

“Do you respect this woman?”

“‘Respect’,” Karl said, as if it were a strange word. “She is successful, able, wealthy, attractive.”

“The rich,” the old man said. He spat into the sink, then washed the spit away with a burst of water from the faucet. “I cannot respect the rich. There are two kinds, those who were born to it, and those who climbed over their brothers to get it. I cannot respect either.”

“She was born to it,” Karl said, “but she has climbed over a few brothers, and sisters as well.”

“I respected every woman I went with,” Brian said.

“I live in her apartment in Washington,” Karl said.

“Well, then, and does it have a doorman?”

“Yes, it has a doorman.”

His father put down his knife. “Each worker,” he declared, “looks down at his brother. You take the steel dancer, the one on the top of the highest building, the one tossing the steel and walking on the beam. He’s saying ‘I’m number one here.’ Take the trucker who drives the big rig on the highway and finesses it in and out of a bay within inches of its sides. He’s got a certain pride. He looks down on his brother. Now the guy who opens the door, even the parking lot attendant can look down on him, he’s a little bit lower.” He laughed roughly. “Each one has their guy. But what pride is there in looking down?” The old man looked at his son inquiringly. “The guy who opens the door, can he have pride? Even the parking lot attendant has pride. But the guy who opens the door for the rich man, or the rich woman, or for the rich woman’s jockey, and holds the umbrella over their heads: it is a little harder for him to find pride.”

“They’re for protection, such as it is,” Karl said. “They’re really unarmed guards. Some of them are armed”.

His father grunted, spent from speaking. He put a finished spud aside and took up the next. “Why haven’t I seen your name in the papers? Don’t they give bylines anymore?”

“Mostly I have done research,” Karl said.

“Printed under someone else’s name is it then?” his father said.

“Sometimes,” Karl admitted. His father laughed. The telltale surface of the bad side of his face, the tear-like baglets, did not shake. They were shimmering like the surface of a rich fabric. Karl could not speak watching them.

“I knew some top-notch reporters in my time,” the old man said. “They were decent men, drunks most of them, but decent men. But they could not print the truth if the editor would not let them. Do you know who the editor worked for?” The old man glared at Karl. “The editor worked for the bosses.”

“The reporters at The World are powerful men, Dad. They print the truth as they see it....More than the truth, they advise the world. I worked under John Farber.” Karl paused for a moment. “Have you seen him on World at Your Feet?”

“Aye, I have seen him: he is a distinguished looking man.”

“He is a beautiful man,” Karl said. He thought nostalgically of evenings working in Farber’s deserted, book-shelved office to be away from the noise of the presses.

“Tell me what you did then,” his father said.

“The grant was to have a lawyer on their staff. My work fits. It was disputes among the agencies that oversee Delaware Bay.”

“And what did you find?” his father asked.

“It’s a garbage can, really. The stuff that gets dumped in it. And a thousand little jurisdictions, pressure groups....”

“And the fishermen,” his father asked, “I had a mate once who fished that bay.”

“They fight one another and their friends. They get screwed coming and going.”

“I can believe that,” his father said. “Fishermen have a lot of pride. I believe it is from being alone so much.”

Karl felt impatient with his father interrupting him. He wanted to tell about the last time he had watched World at Your Feet, yet he turned to another subject.

“I worked on a series on grand juries...because of Whitewater, of course, everyone wants to get their way through the grand jury.”

“Don’t the grand juries work for the DA’s?”

“That’s the way it seems lots of times. Grand juries are our solid citizens. Nothing makes solid citizens feel more powerful than coöperating with the authorities. Sometimes they stray, however. The Watergate Grand Jury strayed some. Grand juries have been known to bring down DA’s.”

“Aye, aye,” his father said, picking up another spud. He was nearing the end of the pile. “But you know they have a hard task. The contradictions of our society meet in their office.”

“Maybe that’s why they’re all such assholes,” Karl said.

The old man chuckled, then he asked, “So, do you like your job?”

“Well, it isn’t a job, exactly.”

His father lifted his face. “Surely you did not take it out of idealism?”

“No,” Karl said.

“What for then?” his father asked.

“Personal growth,” Karl said.

“Now, that I understand,” his father said, “it is the new opiate of the masses.”

“Well you may say that,” Karl said, angry and frightened that they would break off before he could tell all, “but I wanted to have that experience. It would help me understand the role of the media in the execution of the law.”

“Experience, my ass,” his father said. He spat on the heap of peels in the sink. “From what I understand ‘personal growth’ is mostly just above the balls.”

“That’s a handsome way to put it,” Karl said.

Brian had finished the peeling and scooped up the peels in a bowl and dumped them in the pail for compost. Then he asked Karl to clamp a slicer to a metal pad so he could slice the spuds. When he got settled again he asked, “Well, then, did you grow personally?” he asked, drawing out ‘personally’ with contempt.

Karl believed the old man wanted to hear about the woman, and that when he heard, he would get angry, they would quarrel and break off.

“I learned something from Farber about the Grand Jury system,” he answered. “He let me brief him and some of his colleagues on it once. I could see Farber getting bored. I tried hard to be dynamic, but that did not seem to help. Finally he asked me if many Grand Jury foremen subsequently ran for office. I said I’d never heard of that. I began to stumble in my presentation. I said that most Grand Jury foremen were successful men, committed to other careers. Farber said that if the Grand Jury System had any sex appeal, anyone who stood out would smell roses and take the risk. Back at my desk, I felt I had never understood before what was happening with Grand Juries.”

“You’ve turned modest enough,” his father said.

“He’s taken me to lunch at the 20th Century Club. Half the people eating there were names you see every day in the newspapers, and many of the others are more important than the people you read about. He introduced me to Joe Lockheart, Robert Reich, Senator Kennedy...I have forgotten them all.”

“Reich’s a decent man,” his father said. Karl could see he was getting bored, but went on.

“I came once when Hillary Clinton had been there the day before. We sat with some of the press corps who had been there. They pointed out the table by the window where she sat. They talked about who had been with her and what it meant. They made cynical jokes about her, but when they did so they spoke with lowered voices. I felt as if they were adults talking about something important that had happened to them as children.”

“That woman has some good ideas,” his father said, “but she has a swell head on her.”

“It was not long after that,” Karl continued, “he called me into his office and asked me if I had been thinking of a career in journalism when I took the grant. I told him what I have told you. ‘I think you have the touch,’ he said.”

His father stopped slicing spuds and raised his eyebrows on one side of his face. He took up the knife and cut out the eye of a spud that he had missed before.

“Well, I asked what he meant. He said, ‘You are able to communicate meaningful perspectives.’”

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, what’s that supposed to mean?”

“Mom says the Irish soak every misdeed in blarney.”

“Blarney is blarney and a man is allowed a certain amount with a woman, but that crap has no meaning,” his father replied.

“It means,” Karl began. Karl stopped. “I’ll tell you later. I told him then I was not sure about the job. I had to think of the career I had begun. I was not sure about my future with the woman I mentioned.”

The old man stopped his work again. “Did you tell him that? Did you speak her name to him?”

“Sure, Dad. These are sophisticated men. He is divorced, like you. She knew him before she knew me.”

“Sophisticated is it. All right then, go on.”

“Well, I had not worked for him directly until that time. He asked me if I wanted to work under him for the rest of the grant period and I said I would, so that was arranged. First he asked me to ‘drudge a little’ covering the smaller embassies. He introduced me to the man I would replace and they introduced me to the press officers at the embassies and the like. Oh, yes, I asked him if I should brush up on international law. ‘If you think that’s an interesting angle,’ he said.”

“International law?” his father mocked. “And what, pray, is that?? What law can there be until all men are brothers?”

“I spent all the time with him I could. I knew I was getting experience I could get no other way. A man like that is like a musician, he works for two audiences.”

The old man had been digging at the eye of a spud. It spun out of his grip and fell on the floor. He had cut the thumb of his bad hand and he began to try to jerk it to his mouth. It beat the air like the wing of a heavy bird trying to rise. Karl was paralyzed. The spud and the jack knife lay on the floor. Now the weak hand was beating against the old man’s mouth. Then he let it drop.

“Pick up the spud, you damn fool,” his father said.

Karl hastened to obey. He felt stupid that he had not done the obvious thing. The old man had got the tap running and jammed his bad hand under it. Then he took the spud and knife from his son and said, “What musicians work for two audiences, that’s a riddle, eh?”

“For the drunks in the clubs, that’s one, and the other is skilled musicians who hear what he is trying to say,” Karl said.

“Are you saying the people are fools?” his father asked.

Karl felt embarrassed, caught, but he went on, “I’m saying that if you are going to have to act on the basis of an analysis, you read it in quite a different way than if you are just hearing the TV in the other room while you swallow your morning coffee.”

“I’ve known some top-flight musicians,” the old man said, “and the ones that stuck...they care for the music. It was a talent with them. They couldn’t help doing it.”

“Those public men he writes about, for them he is like a critic, an advisor. Farber showed me a column he had once written. He had spelled out what the president should do. Then he ticked off to me how the president had gone on to carry it out. That was Ford. They had not spoken about it, but he said, ‘we understood each other; a wordless understanding passed between us, man to man.’”

“Musicians...” his father began.

“You see,” Karl went on, “it is a star system, even the news magazines are going to a system of star reporters with their pictures. He was hinting I have a chance to be a superstar.”

“Stars are all whores,” his father said, “the women and the men.”

“Farber likes to fit everything into the great diplomatic counter positions of the planet,” Karl continued without listening. “I contradicted him sometimes. I told him the government of Mozambique had not built its railroad narrow gauge because of Soviet relations with China at the time. I told him it was because of a thousand things, because of the kind of tree they cut for ties, because of what land ownership means there, because of a hundred other things we will never know. Then he would brush the air with his hand.” Karl smiled to himself. “‘I know all that,’ he said. Then I had to say, ‘But you don’t,’ and he would say, ‘Yes, I know that too, but saying that railroad is not part of the ebb and flow of the cold war because of local customs is like saying a generating plant is not part of the power system because it is painted blue.’”

Karl regarded his father. He had stopped slicing and was staring at the pile of slices. His neck seemed weaker, his face more unsymmetric.

“Farber is a strong, patient, self-confident loving man when he speaks like that. I felt he searched me, saw me more clearly than anyone had before, understood what I could only grope for and not put into words myself. He is an optimist. He believes the leaders can work things out if they will. His eye searches the world and creates it.”

“History is a deliberation,” his father said, “where the debaters merge and re-form, you saw that with the cold war, but...it’s never done with.”

“Well, at any rate, my grant is running out.”

“Did he offer you a real job?”

“A job of a kind. It would be half what I’m earning in Detroit, and give up the progress I’d made in my career in law, or most of it.”

“What are you going to do, then?”

“Westy, my girl, was away. I decided to do ecstasy in her apartment.”

The old man slapped down the slicer. “I’ve told you I did not want to hear an account of any of your hippie dealings.”

”No hippie ever heard of ecstasy.”

The old man grunted derisively.

“I came to you for advice, how can you advise me if you don’t know who I am?”

“My advice is that you treat your brain cells with some respect,” the old man said.

After a moment, Karl asked, “Is that your final word, then?”

“No, there is no final word,” the old man said, picking up his spud and the slicer. “Go on, tell what you have to tell.”

“Her apartment is lovely, filled with prints, art books, CD’s, leather furniture, wall-to-wall shag carpet.” He stopped, embarrassed. “I had a kind of a vision,” he said. His father rolled his eyes mock to heaven. “I saw all the men and women that had ever mattered to me. They were like the scales on a fish. Each one different, shimmering, arranged in rows and whorls around my fins and orifices. I was swimming in a transparent sea of words, clear, lucid language like water, like when I went with Westy to the Bahamas. Farber was such another fish, you were one” he said lowering his eyes painfully, “there were others” he continued lifting his eyes, “swimming in the clear light.” He paused.

“When my mother sent me to the Jesuits’ school,” his father said, “I had to read about the visions of the holy saints. I took no account of them then and I take no account of them now.”

“After that I turned the television on. The reception is very good. It was the end of Wall Street Week, the Louis Rukeyser show, have you seen it?”

“Yes, your brother -in-law watches it. Rukeyser is a tool. It is the numbers game made respectable. That’s public television.” He spat into the garbage.

“Rukeyser is sure an asshole,” Karl said, “yet I could not keep my eyes off him. He disgusted me, but I was captured. It was the week that actress was busted for cocaine. He made a joke about the market having a whiff of cocaine, and leered, lunging at the screen with one fat eyelid closed. I thought he touched me. He made me sick, but his touch stuck to me like glue”

“He’s a tool and a clown,” his father sad, “Do you want to make your life after a clown?” Karl looked down at his own hands. He wished he had something to occupy them.

“Then World at Your Feet came on. I remembered Farber told me he would be on. He was there with two of his cronies from other papers, men I had met through him. He looked wonderful. He was wearing a gray suit and a wide striped tie. He has told me about how they make him up. It had been a quiet week in world capitals and they were joking. ‘Hey, listen,’ he said, ‘Holbrook made a speech at the Alamo about ethnic cleansing.’ When he spoke, he began to sicken me like Rukeyser. It was as if an invisible slime ran out of his mouth all over his body and I knew if I touched it I would stick to it. He leaned across to caress the moderator on the shoulder. ‘That is a little inappropriate,’ the moderator said. ‘Those people don’t understand ethnic cleansing,’ the third crony said, ‘and if they did, they would be all for it,’ Farber added. They chortled together. They slobbered, the old farts. Yet I could not get up and turn it off.”

“I’m an old fart,” his father commented.

“Do you know why these men say these things?” Karl asked.

“They are tools,” his father said, “they mouth nonsense because they are not allowed to speak the truth.”

“They do it to hoist their self-esteem. They talk about parties, nations, as if they were toys in their hands to inflate their egos. When you are on acid you can look at things that way, as if your mind encompasses the world. That’s why I couldn’t turn it off. Our minds were in tune.”

“Do you recall what Neville Chamberlin said when one of your reporters mocked him that Hitler had made promises before?”

“No,” Karl said.

“‘You see, my dear fellow, this time is different; this time he has made his promise to me.’ In the old days I thought I was grand when I recalled his phrase because he failed and then he was dead, but now...”

“I stood up. I began to work my way toward the TV set, struggling against their gestures, struggling to deflate my mind. I thought of Ulysses when he made his crew bind him to the mast so he could pass the Sirens and hear their song without being able to do anything about it. I envied him his binding. I reached the set and turned it off. I walked out on the balcony. It was one of Washington’s beautiful days. The sun had set but the Western sky was still, bright, blue twilight. The air was clear. The city was alive around me,” He stopped.

“Are you going to quit that job?” the old man asked tensely. He thrust his bad hand toward Karl.

Karl nodded, “It came to me while I was speaking.”

“Why’s that?” The old man said suddenly feigning indifference. Karl reached out and took his bad hand firmly in his.

“You would quit,” he said.

“I never would have taken it,” the old man said. Karl nodded, tears coming to his eyes. He let go of the hand and gripped the edge of the old man’s sleeve, kneading it like a gag.



Dirk van Nouhuys has a BA from Stanford in writing and an MA from Columbia in contemporary literature. He writes novels, short stories, experimental forms, and occasionally verse. He publishes regularly in literary and other magazines to a total of about 80 items. You can learn more at www.wandd.com. Dirk recommends NARAL Pro-Choice America.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Tuesday, February 15, 2022 - 08:09