Book Excerpt: Norah Vincent's 'Self-Made Man'

He was a natural comedian and raconteur, easy to listen to and talk to; the most open of the bunch by far, and charming as hell. He told stories of the worst beatings he'd taken in his life -- and it sounded like there were quite a few -- as if they were parties he'd been privileged to attend. He had a robust sense of his own absurdity and a charming willingness to both assign and ridicule his own role in whatever fate he'd been privy to. Even the most rotten things he'd been handed in life, things that were in no way his fault, things like his wife's ongoing ill health -- first cancer, then hepatitis, then cancer again -- he took with a surprising lack of bitterness. He never fumed about anything, at least not in front of us. That, it seemed, was a private indulgence, and his only apparent public indulgences were of the physical variety -- cigarettes, a few beers out of the case he always brought for the team and junk food.

We all usually ate junk food on those Monday nights, all of us except Bob, who stuck to beer, but let us send his twelve-year-old son Alex, who always tagged along on league night, next door to the 7-Eleven to buy hot dogs, candy, soda, whatever. We always tipped the kid a little for his services, a dollar here and there, or the change from our purchases.

Alex was clearly there to spend some quality time with his dad, but Bob mostly kept him at bay. If we weren't sending him next door to fetch snacks, Bob was usually fobbing him off in some other way with a few extra dollars. He'd encourage him to go and bowl a few practice frames in one of the empty lanes at the end of the alley, or play one of the video games against the back wall. Alex was immature for his age, a chatty kid, and a bit of a nudge, always full of trivia questions or rambling anecdotes about some historical fact he'd learned in school. Typical kids' stuff, but I couldn't really blame Bob for wanting to keep him occupied elsewhere. If you let Alex hang on your arm, he would, and he'd make you wish you hadn't. Besides, this was men's night out, and most of what we talked about wasn't for kids' ears. I noticed, though, that no one ever tempered his speech when Alex was around. We swore like stevedores, and nobody seemed bothered, including me, that a twelve-year-old was within earshot. I can't say that the kid ever aroused any maternal instinct in me. I went along with the make-him-a-man attitude that seemed to prevail at the table. In that sense, Alex and I were on a par in our tutorial on manhood, just doing what was expected of us. I was never mean to him, but I participated heartily when the guys teased him. When he'd been going on for too long about Amerigo Vespucci or something else he'd picked up in social studies, either Jim or Allen would say, "Are you still talking?" and we'd all laugh. Alex always took it well, and usually just went right on talking.

I got the impression that part of Bob's way of teaching his son how to relate to other men was to throw him in with the wolves and let him find his way by trial and error. He'd learn his place in the pack by seeing what worked and what didn't. If he took harsh insults or beatings in the process, so much the better. It would toughen him up.

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