Cary Tennis After Hours

Musings, outtakes and daydreams

Cary Tennis

Cary Tennis
San Francisco, California, USA
September 11
Since You Asked advice columnist
Cary Tennis writes the Since You Asked advice column for He also leads writing workshops and runs a small publishing company. He lives in the Outer Sunset/Ocean Beach neighborhood of San Francisco with his wife Norma, who is a painter and book designer, and their two standard poodles, Lola and Ricky.


Editor’s Pick
JANUARY 31, 2010 2:17AM

"Dead people don't talk."

Rate: 20 Flag

That's Marlon Brando in "The Fugitive Kind." He and Joanne Woodward drive out to a cemetery in the night and get out of the car and she says, "You hear the dead people talking?" and he says, "Dead people don't talk." 

"Sure they do," she says. "Chatter away like birds ... All they can say is one word. That word is 'live.' Live, live, live, live, live. It's all they know. It's the only advice they can give. Simple. It's a very simple instruction."

Something's going on between them, something fierce and wild. She walks to the car and they drive back to town.  

I doze off.  The nerve pain in my left foot got bad so I took a little white oxycodone pill and it made me sort of doze off a little.

My dad was a chatterer but death has silenced him. His bones are going into the fire soon. If we put our ears to the bag of ashes maybe we will be able to hear him.

Where will we scatter the ashes? His will says either on Chesapeake Bay or Chocktawhatchee Bay. Maybe both, split the ashes more or less 50-50, row out in each bay, the bay he was born on and the bay he died on.

Brando pulls up at a storefront in the small town. She asks him what he's doing. He's going to see about that job.

My dad had lots of jobs. This was down South in the 1950s and 1960s. If he'd been black, or a low-class white, maybe he would have been called shiftless. Instead people said that he was "intellectually curious"; he was trying to find the occupation that most suited his talents and interests. He was trying to find himself. After the dislocation of World War II, America was full of men trying to relocate themselves. 

He was a radio announcer for a while. He had a theatrical side -- a big theatrical side! In fact, to understand the strange  sense one often had that he was not really participating in this world, was not really connecting with the person he was talking to, would be to say that he was always working on his act, trying out bits for his own amusement if not for the amusement of others. Most people have a "life unlived." His was the life of an actor. 

Remember that time before his diagnosis when I went with my dad to the neurologist? How it turned out he really didn't know what year it was or who the president was, and when it seemed that the full weight of memory and choice and inevitability had come crushingly down upon him in that tiny, sterile office in the presence of our hearty and cheerful young ex-Air Force neurologist, out of his befuddlement he suddenly shouted, "I should have gone on Broadway! Damn"? Remember that?

He had many uses for the word "damn," and for each use an inflection. There was the long, drawn-out, befuddled daaaamn with a deep swooping curve in the middle of it. There was the seeming question "Damn?" Many others he was famous for. All of our friends had impersonations; everybody took a turn at doing my dad's "damn." And then later when he would stop mid-sentence, unable to grab the next word in the series, left hanging, he would say "Damn! Damnit!" and really mean it.

Bays. He always lived on bays. Not oceans. Bays. So then I went and moved to the ocean. The ocean is so untrustworthy and impractical, mostly for show, for surfers and occasional surf fishermen. You can't put a boat in every morning and row out serenely. It's hard to make a life of it if you live your life in boats.

How did my dad find himself cut off from boats and bays, cut off from the life he knew as a boy and the life he knew as a man in war? I think his exile from boats brought him much unhappiness.

Suddenly we were not in an area where people had boats as a matter of course; people did not have boats for fishing or getting to see relatives on the other side of the bay or for transporting oysters or corn. Boats were now about affluence and "recreation." We were trapped in Florida now, the emerging modern Florida of forgetfulness, a whole state selling itself as a place to escape from life.

Things got twisted around for my dad. He didn't know. He couldn't see it coming. He didn't know what happened but the world changed from the little world of Hampton Roads and Phoebus, Virginia. His ancestors were among those early English settlers back in the 1600s. They came over in boats and some of them stayed near boats generation after generation, I figure. Some of the records are hazy. Records got burned in wars and burned in fires and lost in hurricanes and just plain lost I figure. But apparently they stuck around that area because they were still there in time for me to get born in Portsmouth, Virginia. 

The sheriff warns Brando to get out of town but Anna Magnani talks him into staying for the grand opening of her confectionery. So of course they all go up in flames, Southern style. They loved each other but didn't understand each other and went up in flames together.

My response to the death of my father has been muted so far; I was able to say goodbye to him on the phone the day before he died. I can't fly on a plane because I'm still recovering from surgery. So I won't be able to attend any kind of funeral or memorial, but I doubt there will be anything fancy done, unlike the funeral for his brother Hall, which was quite an event, with Hall lying in state in the open casket in the dining room (in the casket made by Hall's sons, my cousins), and the full honor guard and salute by the Marines, as he was one of those guys on Iwo Jima. I think my dad will go quietly, as he would prefer.

My mother wasn't much for boats. I think that's the big difference right there. She was a land person and he was a water person. They were both of English blood but his was the seagoing England and hers was the tea-drinking and farming England. That's what happened. She was trying to be civilized English like her mother but also longed to live on the land like her Norwegian dad. So after they divorced she moved up to the woods and turned out to be a fierce digger in dirt, a fierce builder of savage and primitive shelter for her solitude. In May, after she died, we scattered her ashes up there on that hill in Virginia where she lived. My dad didn't understand her. I don't blame him. How can you understand somebody you love? It doesn't work that way.



Your tags:

Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
Cary, Your writing is so good, it leaves me speechless and slack-jawed. I find myself wanting more, wanting you to say you are fine and you are handling things well, because in this short essay you make me care about you. Dammit!
I'm so sorry for your loss. The loss of your Dad, and the loss of your health.
See how you are.....and see how happy we are to have you on OS.

Be well, get well. (and send some virtual drugs around.......we enjoy them even though they are electronic. It's the thought that counts.)
I just re-read this. Evocative of times and places that I've never been, but that now I feel.

God you're good.
Hi, I am up late, too. I just read this post and the one about your surgery.
I'm thinking about losing my parents and how different those two experiences were. My dad dropped dead of a heart attack, good clean, death, just gone.
My mother had a big stroke and died twice but was resuscitated both times.When she came out of a 10+ day coma, the first thing she said to me was, "Man! I have NEVER died so many times before!" It was clear she was very surprised. She complained about being attacked by green men. Brain damage? I was expecting her to start into wild rantings about aliens, but no, she was scared by the orderlies who wore green scrubs.
Funny isn't it, how different people get such different things out of similar experiences?
It is really good to see you getting some light.
Man. You are a master storyteller and I hope to heck you keep it up. We want to know more!

Two things you say above really hit home. The business of one's unlived life, and the idea that we can't understand someone we love. I've spent many drifting hours thinking about both my father's unlived life and my late husband's, what either of them might've done had they zigged instead of zagging, the other path from the fork in the road. I've even thought about this with respect to my late mother, lost to schizophrenia for so long it's hard to imagine anything else and she didn't choose that route anyway.

Aside from love, or love of the unsolved mystery, I'm sure my ponderings are selfish. Here in middle aged, finally able to feel the finite edges, I want to do know what to do next. What unintended lesson lies in their unlived lives that I should heed. Perhaps that's up with you, too, given what you've faced.

At the same time, I think you're right about our inability to ever understand someone we love. We'll never really know if we're right about their unlived life, and even as we grapple with our own. Exciting, scarey stuff to be thinking about.
I smiled at the vision of your dad as he said "I should have gone on Broadway. Damn." Something so childlike and naive, so sweet, in it's realization that it was too late. I remember my dad, knowing he had a short time to live, saying something in that same way.

I loved the way you wove these stories together. I read your last paragraph three times, so many layers in there, so many things to think about.
I am loving your writing. r
beautiful, Cary. I'm sorry for your loss. Sending you love.
Very nice read - it feels like a mini-biography with a lot of information packed into, and in between, a few paragraphs describing a life as well as a personality. It's difficult to imagine how this huge and emotional event might be impacting you in your current situation of enforced quiet, but you summed it up beatufully with "My response to the death of my father has been muted so far..."

This piece is a great response for so far.
Reading what you write is definitely one of life's pleasures.

This piece is a beautiful tribute to your dad. While the rest of the family says their last words about him at the funeral you cannot attend, you honored him just right.
Wonderful, (slightly selfish) upside of this whole surgical adventure is that you are here more, writing things like this. Lucky, lucky us.
What an eloquent memorial. Your dad must have been so proud of you. I feel as if I knew him, just a bit.
Wow.....that "wow" is just because I finally got to this screen where I could write a comment. This is the first time I've ever read or posted a comment on any blog, so you can imagine that it took persistence....I'm 63 yrs old....a ten year old would've been here in seconds! But this's enough of this!

I read your descriptions of Mel and am prompted to respond and add. I heard last night that he had died. (To whom am I writing here??? to you or to the rest of the folks who read your blog????) Well anyhow, let me ntroduce myself in case someone else reads the comments besides Cary. I used to be married to Mel's younger brother Hall, the one whose funeral was an "event" as Cary describes, and I've know Cary and Mel and most of the Tennis clan for a good number of years....let's see, somewhere around 38 years....that deserves another "wow".

They're all pretty unique...and Mel, Cary's Dad, was one of the most unique. When I first met him in Miami it was after he and Ann had split....he was my new lover's older brother....and such an interesting guy....unlike anyone I had every met before. A middle-aged seeker who was a little mysterious. I was never sure where he lived or did for aliving. It seemed that he was quite content to have all his belongings in his car trunk, although he supposedly had a room or someplace to stay in South Miami. At that time he was doing research for the Dade County Board of Education....altho you never know what that really means....the info came thru Hall, at least partially, and Hall had a way of obfuscating the facts....not with any malicious intent, but only to leave at least a slight mystery in the air....perhaps he himself never knew the "truth" and was simply reluctant to be wrong. Anyway, Mel talked more about the music or play that he was writing than about work. He also had a big interest in paranormal psychology at the time. He was always pursuing one interest or Cary noted. And he could take any topic or comment from a conversation you'd be having and allow that it could be thought of in some other way....and while he would opine on that, his eyes would be flitting from you to someplace aside of you while he had a covert smile on his face. It was definitely intriguing.....and of course, very eclectic. Mel laughed easily......kind of a "ho, ho, ho", slightly self-conscious laugh that he would add to his comments about different ways of thinking about things. These mannerisms were very easy for family members to imitate....and they did frequently. I don't think that he ever really changed over the years that I knew him.....he just got older.

I'm very sorry to hear that he's no longer breathing. He was a good person. No more troubled or fucked up than the rest of us. And he had an enduring, dignified, desire for pursuing life's pleasures and "the truth"......that means something.
What a wonderful tribute to your Dad. May I also say that I love the way you write and I'm glad you are on the mend. But, yes, what a tribute!
Damn. That's good writing, Cary. Well done.
What a wonderful tribute to your father, Cary. And you really are an amazing writer. I have missed your writing during your recovery from your surgery and its great that you're able to write again. Take care of yourself and continue to heal.
Wonderful, as ever.
Good to have you back.
Cary, you have had a pretty sucky couple of months haven't you? I am sorry for the loss of your dad, and glad you are back, we missed you.
Beautiful. But dead people do talk, don't they?--through memory and the experiences of their children. Obviously your parents talk through you and your own particular lens on life. There's another dialectic to this as well: the parent observing grown children struggling with their misinterpretation, judgments, opinionated and painful reflections about their parents! That is what I am experiencing. Seeing myself reflected in my children's eyes, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible to really "know" the ones you love, the ones who are kin, the ones you choose to stay with ("more than kith but less than kin") the ones you are stuck with. We are all just groping in the dark. The one lone factor that transcends all of this is love and the most important component of love is forgiveness.
So sorry about the death of your father (and mother). What a trying time this must be.My best wishes and blessings go out to you.
Best thing to know here is that your dad will be waiting at the gate for you. That's the only image I could savour when my parents moved on up. Blessings and a coupla tears in your honour. xoxo