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The Descendant by Robert Kerbeck | Word Riot
Creative Nonfiction

May 16, 2016      

The Descendant by Robert Kerbeck

Listen to a reading of “The Descendant” by Robert Kerbeck.

My father, Bob, hadn’t wanted me to be an actor, or an English major. He wanted me to take over the Lincoln Mercury dealership that he and his brother co-owned in North Philadelphia. I’d known this my entire life—not that it was said out loud. As the eldest son in a part-Armenian family, it was simply a fact. I guess this was why I was willing to do anything not to live at home during my freshman year at Drexel University, also in Philadelphia. I was already planning my escape.
      “You’ll commute from home,” my father had said. “I’m gonna give you $200 a month. You can use that for spending money.”
      But I didn’t want spending money. I wanted a way out.
      Against my father’s wishes, I got an off-campus one-bedroom apartment with two other guys. My share came to $117 a month. After phone and utilities, I’d eaten up $150 of my “spending money” without using a dime for food. I lived on Kraft Mac & Cheese (three for 99 cents) and never went out.
      In my second semester at Drexel, known as an engineering and business school, I had a professor from the University of Pennsylvania, which was just across the street, teaching freshman English. Apparently, Drexel paid good money for Penn teachers to “moonlight” there, as it saved them from keeping English professors on staff. The teacher, Jim Hess, read my first essay in the class (on John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women) and asked me what the hell I was doing there. I didn’t have an answer as I’d been wondering the same thing.
      When I mentioned transferring schools to my father and switching from being a business major to English, he snapped, “You can wipe your ass with a liberal arts degree.”
      Then he berated me about how expensive Penn was.
      His words didn’t surprise me, but they stung. I thought back to that paper, how smart writing it had made me feel, knowing I could string together words and sentences, that I could read into a text and come up with meaning. I wanted that feeling again. I wanted the praise of an Ivy League English professor telling me how good my writing was, words that weren’t ever going to come from my father.
      “I’ll pay for it,” I said, despite not having a clue if that was possible.
      “I’d like to see that.” My father may not have laughed, but he certainly snickered.
      I don’t remember where or when this conversation occurred, though it was somewhere in Philadelphia, likely early 1982. I don’t recall what I was wearing, who I was dating, or what band I was listening to, but I’ll never forget what I said back to him. The theme song from Rocky might as well have been playing in my head for I’d been given a shot at a different life, and I wasn’t going to blow it.
      “You will.”


      In the summer of 1986, my father handed me an envelope. We were sitting in his fake-wood-paneled office, where I’d spent an insane number of hours working with him during the fifteen months since I graduated from Penn with a BA in English, along with a minor in theatre. My father had been more than happy to welcome his prodigal son back into the fold when I’d been too chicken to move to New York to try to become a professional actor. I’d been selling cars at the dealership. A lot of them. It turned out I was very good at it.
      But on this day, I was leaving.
      I’d found the courage to give acting a go, student loan debt be damned. I was heading off to the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival to do Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, playing a soldier with a short sword and no lines.
      On the back of the envelope was my father’s scribbled writing. It took me a moment to decipher it.
      If you change your mind, you can come back.
      I hadn’t even left and already my father was lobbying for my return. In the envelope was a gift of a few hundred dollars, but no card or note wishing me success or even good luck.
      While in New Jersey, however, I got a call that a production of George Orwell’s 1984 was moving from Philadelphia to the new American National Theatre at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. They needed a strong thug-like character (my specialty) to play the head henchman for the thought police. I went from being an unpaid summer stock extra to being paid over $600 a week to act.
      My parents came down from Philadelphia to see the play, but my father didn’t say much. I hadn’t expected him to tell me I was talented or that he was proud of me, but I’d hoped for some acknowledgement that getting a job like this meant I was right to give acting a shot. I’m sure he thought I’d be back after that summer in New Jersey, hat in hand, dreams permanently dashed. During our time working together, he talked to me about taking over the dealership, just as he and his brother had taken it over from their father, and as my grandfather had from my immigrant great-grandfather, Garabed. The Kerbeck family had sold horse carriages before cars were invented. The brass placard on the front of the building read “Since 1899.” Surely with me in charge, the oldest son and best suited of the children—the one who’d inherited the bullshitting gene—the tradition would continue.
      But George Orwell led me to New York while my father’s business quickly went downhill, as if I’d taken the wind out of his sails (and plans) by moving away. I didn’t like to hear about the troubles—some financial, others legal—since they sounded like justifications to pull me back in. I was living in Manhattan in 1988 when I got a call from him, a rare occurrence.
      “They’re revoking the franchise,” he said.
      This was the worst thing that could happen to a car dealer. I figured my father and uncle would eventually sell the franchise to another dealer. Instead, Ford, the parent company of Lincoln Mercury, was taking it back. For nothing.
      “I need to borrow some money.” His voice was tight, the words fast.
      At the time, I was a struggling actor and had no money. But he was my father, and I knew that asking me for money—even if it came out like a demand—had to be the hardest thing he’d ever done. For a moment, I thought he was going to cry. Young men don’t often feel sorry for their fathers, but hearing him in a panic about losing everything—when only a few years earlier things had been good—I felt sorry for him then. To help him pay his bills—including the mortgage on my childhood home—I wrote him a check off my credit card.
      Around this time, I’d become a member of the Actors Studio, the training ground for actors like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. I’d done a play there, too, after which Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward came backstage to invite me to their home for a private reading.
      As my career moved forward, Kerbeck Lincoln Mercury folded, forever.

      Five years later, I was standing at the craft services table on the Warner Brothers lot, admiring an assortment of junk food: Twizzlers, M&Ms, potato chips—all a bad idea for an aspiring leading man—when a woman with jet-black hair and the whitest smile I’d ever seen glided toward me.
      I heard my father’s voice. That is one cool drink of water.
      “Hi, I’m Sela Ward.”
      I knew who she was. After all, I’d been hired to kill her.
      “Uh, hi, I’m Robert Kerbeck.”
      “So nice to meet you. Have you met George Clooney yet?”
      I shook my head. I didn’t know who he was since I didn’t watch the Sisters TV show, though I knew Sela from her work as Harrison Ford’s wife in The Fugitive. She was the friendliest person I’d met since moving to Los Angeles. Her beauty and kindness were making me sweat.
      “Come on. I’ll introduce you.”
      She linked her arm in mine and promenaded me onto the Sisters set. The soundstage was set up for the outdoor scene we were about to film, the lighting creating a full-moon effect on the façade of the home of Teddy Reed, the character Sela played on the show. In a few moments, I, as the hitman John McCormick, would knock on the front door, and Sela, playing a blind Teddy, would open it. I had set off a bomb, which temporarily blinded her and also killed her boyfriend, Detective James Falconer, aka George Clooney. In the scene we were to shoot, Falconer’s ghost had come back to prevent me from finishing the job on Teddy.
      “George! George!” Sela called to a young man standing by himself. He looked like a Teddy too—a Teddy bear, dark-skinned with big brown eyes. He was a bit thick-waisted for an actor. He resembled pictures I’d seen of my own father as a young man.
      “Howdy,” he said, extending his arm to shake. “George Clooney.”
      “Robert Kerbeck.”
      “You go by Bob?”
      “Robert. I’m a junior,” I said. “My dad goes by Bob, so it was easier to keep us straight if I went by Robert.”
      This was a lie. I’d been Bobby as a kid and then Bob throughout high school. It was only after I started acting that I “changed” my name, when I realized I didn’t want to be a copy of my father. But I wasn’t letting this George guy know that.
      “Where do you hail from, Bob?” he asked.
      “I just moved from New York.”
      “New York Bob.” George slapped me on the shoulder like he was christening a ship—or had just sold me a crappy car. “Thanks for killing me on the show.” He laughed.
      “No problem.” I laughed back.
      “You know why they’re killing me?”
      I didn’t. I hadn’t even thought about it. I was just happy to get the gig.
      “George is doing the new Michael Crichton series that Steven Spielberg is producing,” Sela told me.
      “Great,” I said, glad to recognize at least one of the Hollywood names. I was a theater guy after all.
      “It’s called ER,” he said with the kind of car-dealer smile that would’ve made my father hire him too.

      George Clooney and I exited the interior soundstage, traipsing across the huge studio lot on our lunch break. He was insistent on showing me the ER set, even though we only got an hour for lunch. I’d been warned the lines at the commissary were long. One or two people said “hi” to him, but other than that, he was as un-notable as I was. He led me into a building that was quite dark. It took my eyes a second or two to adjust, but when they did, I found myself standing inside a hospital corridor, looking into a perfect replica of an emergency room. It dawned on me then that his new show, which wasn’t on the air yet, was called ER because it stood for emergency room. Here I’d thought ER were the initials of the main character, like an abbreviated version of T.J. Hooker or Magnum, P.I.
      George morphed into a studio tour guide and began to show me every room on the set, explaining this and that, all while telling me the struggles of his career. Apparently, ER was the fifth or sixth pilot he’d done. None of the previous ones had been picked up as a series. Though Sisters had been on the air for years, George had only recently landed a recurring part on the show. He was a working actor but just barely. And he was no kid either. He joked that hiring him meant the pilot was doomed. I could tell he felt the clock was ticking on his career. He was praying that ER would break his curse.
      I felt no similar sense of desperation, despite being just a few years younger. I’d recently moved to LA and was already getting a steady stream of jobs. Surely, it was only a matter of time before I had my own series too.
      But what I remember most about that day was that I couldn’t get George Clooney to shut up—or let me go to lunch. It seemed he would’ve been content to discuss the set and series (and his hopes for it) indefinitely, or at least until the Sisters crew tracked us down. Finally, given no other choice, I did what I had to do.
      “George,” I said. “I’m fucking starving.”
      I turned and walked away without waiting, or looking back.

      It was a cold and rainy day in November 2000. My father underwent experimental heart surgery at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic. Earlier, I’d met my parents at the hospital and had seen my dad off into surgery, pushing his wheelchair until they would let me push no farther.
      “You came all this way to see me,” he said, for the third or fourth time. He seemed shocked I’d traveled from California.
      “Of course. You’re my dad.”
      Wearing a standard-issue hospital gown, he looked older than his fifty-nine years. His whiskers were white, his hair pretty much gone. Now that he worked at home from morning to night day-trading stocks, he no longer had to keep up his appearance—or wear a suit and tie. The elaborate comb-over hairstyle he’d had my mother do each morning for decades existed only in my memory.
      “It’s just of all the kids, you’re the last one I would’ve expected.”
      I nodded but didn’t say anything, thinking he wished my sister or brother had come. My father thought of my sister as the kind one, my brother as the comedian. I wanted to do something sweet or say something funny, but showing up was as far as I could take it.
      My mother didn’t want me to wait with her. I didn’t ask why, but as a registered nurse, she must have known my lack of patience during the all-day surgery would drive her crazy. The only thing I could think to do was something I hadn’t planned. I went to pray in my version of church: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
      The museum was nearly empty, though there was a band setting up in the main lobby. I wasn’t sure why. I spent the first hour or so listening to snippets from many of the Hall’s 500 Songs That Shaped Rock And Roll. I’d pick one song from the screen, then seconds later I’d see something else I had to hear and click over.
      I realized I could spend the entire day listening to songs and decided to check out the exhibits. I discovered a small U2 exhibit, but it was the John Lennon one that got my attention. Billed as the largest collection of Lennon artifacts ever assembled, the exhibit traced John’s life. I read his school report card. I studied his guitars, stage outfits, and handwritten lyrics. I saw the bloody glasses he was wearing when he was shot.
      I walked through the memorabilia, no longer thinking of my father possibly dying on an operating table, but of what a genius John Lennon was. And what a loss his murder had been. I heard ringing, which I tried to ignore, but it wouldn’t stop. I followed the sound to a white phone sitting on top of a white table. There was a sign saying that if the phone was ringing to pick it up and talk to Yoko Ono. I guessed it was a recording of some greeting from her, since most of the items on display had come from her estate.
      “Hello,” I said, answering it.
      “Hi, this is Yoko Ono,” a woman’s voice said with a thick Japanese accent. “What’s your name?”
      “Uh, Robert.”
      “Thanks for coming to see the exhibit. Are you enjoying it?”
      “Yeah,” I said, thinking that the quality of the recording wasn’t very good since I was having trouble understanding her accent. Just then, the band I’d seen setting up earlier began to play in the main hall.
      “What’s that sound?” the woman asked.
      When I realized the voice had heard the music in the background, I knew it was really Yoko.
      “Uh, it’s, uh, a band downstairs.” I had to yell since the music was reverberating and shaking the building. “I guess they’re practicing for some event.”
      Then just as quickly the band stopped. It appeared they were doing a sound check.
      “Oh, that’s better,” Yoko said. “What do you do?”
      “Well, I’m kind of an actor.”
      “What kind?”
      “The burned-out kind,” I said without thinking, but as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they were true. My agency had recently dropped me. I’d tried making some phone calls and sending out headshots, but my heart wasn’t in it. I remember how happy I’d been to star in the world premiere of two Joyce Carol Oates plays at the Long Wharf Theatre, or how proud I’d been to be a part of the cast that won a Drama-Logue award for The Pink Triangle. But those productions were nearly a decade earlier.
      “That happened to John too.”
      “Excuse me?” I asked, unclear how John Lennon and I could have anything in common.
      “That’s why John wrote ‘Watching the Wheels.’ He’d lost his love for making music.”
      I’d grown up with the Double Fantasy album that featured the song and knew the lyrics by heart: I’m just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round
      I really love to watch them roll
      No longer riding on the merry-go-round
      I just had to let it go.
      The band started playing again. Yoko said something I couldn’t make out.
      “I’m sorry,” I said. “I can’t hear you.” I stuck my finger in my opposite ear to better hear what she was saying. “I’m sorry, Yoko, you have to speak up.”
      She mumbled something again.
      “Yoko, I can’t hear a word you’re saying. Please speak up.”
      She seemed to get quieter just as the music seemed to get louder.
      “Yoko, speak up,” I hollered, but it was no use. The band had made it impossible for us to have a conversation, so I hung up.
      When I did, I heard gasps. I looked up and found myself surrounded by probably everyone in the museum that day.
      “How could you hang up on Yoko Ono?” one asked.
      Later, I was told people had come running when they heard the phone ringing. Even the staff had bolted out of their offices to hear our exchange. It was Yoko who’d insisted on the installation of the phone so she could check in with visitors.
      My phone call was only the second time she’d done so.

      Two hours later, I got a call that my father was coming out of surgery. At the ICU, my father was only allowed one visitor. There was an insane amount of equipment surrounding my unconscious father, most of it beeping or chirping. A nurse was flitting from patient to patient. I walked to his bedside and stood there in shock. I’d been so happy to get the news that the surgery was a success, I hadn’t considered the toll it would take. I stared at the monitors and studied the constantly changing numbers. Were they good? Was lower better? Or higher? Unlike my mother the nurse, who could have translated, I knew nothing of medicine. I only knew I was petrified to lose him.
      “Are you Robert? The actor?” a nurse asked, suddenly beside me. She was young and attractive, in her early thirties. My mother, a chatty Cathy, had clearly filled her in.
      “Uh, yeah,” I said as she beamed up at me like I was standing on the red carpet. I kept expecting her to introduce herself but she didn’t. She just kept smiling. Finally, she pointed at my father.
      “He’s been talking about you, about his kids.”
      This seemed unlikely, but as if on cue, my father started mumbling, and at a decent volume considering his condition. “Robert, he’s my oldest…Susan is my daughter…David’s the baby.”
      The rest was incoherent. But it was about us. As close to death as he could get, all he talked about were his children.

      My final acting job was a small recurring part on NYPD Blue in 2001. As a parting gift, someone on the set gave me a NYPD Blue baseball hat. I was so over the business I never even wore it. Instead, I gave it to my father.
      He, on the other hand, wore the crap out of that hat. It seemed every picture I saw had my dad wearing it. He wore it on the golf course. He wore it on the tennis court. He wore it at cocktail parties. Somehow, at the end of my career and his life, my father had become my biggest booster. Maybe that’s why we got so close at the end, as close as we’d ever been. We both understood what it was like to have a taste of the life we wanted, only to have it slip away.
      When my dad died in 2002, I took the hat home with me to California. It sits on the dash of my car or by my surfboards in the garage, always nearby. I’ve tried to wear the hat on occasion, but it had conformed so well to my father’s head that it didn’t fit me. I often wonder why I’ve kept it if I’m never going to wear it, why the hat has followed me from the garage to the car to a shelf in my office—and back again—for over a decade now.
      Did the hat represent the letter I wanted to receive from him, the words I wanted to hear? Though if someone me asks why I’ve hung onto it all these years—perhaps one day my own son—my answer will be simple: “Because it was my dad’s.”

IMG_0129About the author:

Robert Kerbeck is the recipient of the upstreet short fiction scholarship for the 2016 VCFA writer’s conference. His work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Cream City Review, upstreet, Cortland Review, Gargoyle, and The MacGuffin. His first play, Putin And The Snowman, opens Off-Broadway in July.

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