The first time I asked my father about the epiphany machine was also the only time that he hit me. What made an impression on me was not the actual physical contact, a gentle slap only slightly more abrasive than the wind that was blowing very hard for an October day. My father seemed no more likely to slap me than to slit my throat and watch me bleed out into the leaf-clogged gutter, so for all I knew that might come next. In my young mind, for him to have hit me at all meant that something must have been unlocked in him,
something that would have remained boxed up had I not liberated it with the magic words "the epiphany machine," and that would now never cease to pursue me until it had achieved my destruction.
He knelt down and looked me in the eye. "You have no idea how much I've gone through to protect you from that horrible thing."
This made me sob.
"If you're old enough to know about the epiphany machine, then you're too old to cry."
This only made me sob harder.
"Venter, you need to tell me who told you about the machine. Was it your grandmother? She promised me she wouldn't say anything about it until we both agreed that you were old enough."
"It wasn't her. I just heard about it on TV."
This was not technically a lie. One night, after I was supposed to be asleep, I had heard my grandmother weeping while watching an eleven-o'clock news report suggesting that the epiphany machine might be responsible for the spread of HIV, another thing I had never heard of. I connected this to the time when my father had made an excessively big show of not freaking out over the cover of a copy of a magazine that had been left on the table at a coffee shop: "Did a Tiny Cult in New York City Help Spread HIV?" But these events had happened weeks earlier—which might as well have been decades according to my sense of time—and were not why I had asked about the device. I had asked because, at recess that morning, I had heard one teacher whisper to another as I passed by, "His mother got a tattoo from the epiphany machine." Now I wanted to know what it was. I was also wondering whether the epiphany machine had something to
do with the tattoo on my father's forearm—SHOULD NEVER BECOME A FATHER—that he had sat me down to talk about shortly before I was old enough to read it, claiming he had gotten it as a stupid prank when he was very young, long before I was born.
"On TV!" my father said, laughing. "My brilliant boy, I'm sorry I slapped you. Let's take a walk." We walked past the crematorium across from our house to the cemetery two blocks away. (Queens was and remains a city of the dead with some halfhearted gentrification from the living.) The wind continued as we maintained silence for several rows of what my father and grandmother called "nails on a sum," aping what they said had been my attempt, at the age of three, to say that gravestones looked like thumbnails. I got myself
together and stopped crying, but then I suddenly realized that my father must be taking me to see my mother's grave—that this was how he was going to tell me that my mother was dead, and had not merely
run away. I started sobbing again. This time my father did not scold me, but he did not comfort me either. He just looked out at the traffic. Finally, he spoke.
"Do you know why your grandmother and I think that nails on a sum is funny?"
"Because it's silly?"
"Because it's not silly. Because it's actually exactly correct. They've told you in school what a sum is, right?"
"That's in adding."
"Exactly. Can you give me an example of a sum?"
"In two plus two equals four, the sum is four."
"Good, my brilliant boy!"
This made me feel very, very good, as the fact that I hated him at the moment did not make me long any less for him to think that I was a genius.