October 1, 2013 | by Sadie Stein
“What would Ben Franklin make of this, if he were sitting here right now?” mused my father. We were driving on the West Side Highway. I was living with my parents following a breakup. This was fairly typical, topic-wise.
“I’d have to explain, Dr. Franklin, you are sitting in a conveyance known as a ‘car.’ These horseless carriages you see are also cars. They operate via combustion engines. Those lanterns you see there are powered by something called ‘electricity.’ And then, of course, I’d have to explain about movies. Dr. Franklin, those large posters you see are advertising something we call ‘films.’ You go into a large room and see a talking picture projected onto a screen by means of—”
“Why do you have to say ‘talking picture’?” demanded my mother irritably. “Why can’t you just say ‘movie’?”
“That would be too confusing. I have a lot of ground to cover, acquainting him with the modern world. And I’d say, Dr. Franklin, perhaps I shall take you to a moving picture. Would you like to see a comedy? A romance?”
“Take him to see a period piece,” I put in eagerly. “Then you could acquaint him with some of the historical events that occurred in the intervening period!”
“Good idea,” he said. “Now, Dr. Franklin—”
“Why are you calling him doctor?” said my mother.
“He was given an honorific by the Royal Academy!” said my father impatiently. “It was what everyone called him. It was what he preferred to be called! That’s common knowledge, Priscilla!
I suppose you could call this a low point. I lived in my childhood room. I commuted to and from my job every day via MetroNorth and spent most of my free time with my family. For the first time, I went to see a therapist. This was kind of a big deal, since no one in my family really did therapy. Once, in the eighties, my mom and dad had gone to a marriage counselor, who suggested they get divorced. Anyway, this woman and I hated each other on sight, and she told me I should disengage from my parents. This seemed impractical, under the circumstances.
“How long,” said Dad, “do you think it would take Dr. Franklin to adjust to the modern world, to grasp the rudiments of modern technology, Priscilla?”
“I have no idea.”
“Come on, guess. How long?”
“I don’t know. Two minutes.”
“Two minutes? Are you joking? To grasp electricity—television—the Internet—are you out of your mind?”
“I don’t know! You made me guess!”
“Two minutes.” He shook his head.
The therapist said I should connect with joyful things. I tried my hand at children’s fiction. “There once was a doll,” I wrote, “who rejoiced in the name of Carol Lynn Krouk.” (Krouk was a name I used a lot in my writing.) “Krouk was a loud doll with a disproportionate head.” This is as far as I got.
“Dr. Franklin would doubtless like to pay a visit to that establishment,” said my father. We were passing a billboard for Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. “He was a notorious ladies’ man, of course.”
For a few days, I thought a great deal about where rage sits in the stomach, as opposed to contempt, guilt, self-loathing, and grief. This much I knew: they were all close, like the sinuses and the teeth, and it is easy to confuse one for the other. But I was not sure whether they lay in strata, or were instead compartmentalized. This is the sort of thing people knew about in the Middle Ages, but now it felt like a lonely path. Once I thought I’d do an abstract watercolor of the concept, as it struck me as suitably artistic. But then I couldn’t find a brush, so that was that.
The therapist decided I needed medical help, so I visited a psychiatrist instead. She was right; also, as noted, we had hated each other.
“Well, he was a man of science,” I said now. “He’d probably grasp concepts relatively quickly. But, Dad, don’t you think it would be better if you had someone who actually understood all the technology explain it to him?”
“We don’t have that option. He’s appeared in this car.”
“But I mean, he has the capacity to understand the basic science, probably.”
“Well, I could call Cy,” he said, referring to a second cousin who is a doctor. “Cy, guess who I have here. No, guess.”
“Harry, this is tedious,” said my mother sharply.
“Well, you won’t guess. Ben Franklin! Yes, the Ben Franklin! I’m putting him on. Here, Ben, speak into this.”
“Hello? Yes, this is Dr. Franklin—”
“Harry, stop it,” said my mother.
Sometimes I think that was the happiest time of my life.