I was born so much later than my two siblings that I was virtually an only child. My father was an architect, and when I was young, he spent a lot of time with me. He even took me with him on business trips to Las Vegas, Reno, and Tahoe. He talked to me about architecture, tried to teach me algebra, and complained about my mother, who was depressed and a hypochondriac. Though I feigned interest in what he was saying, mostly I felt lost.
In all the time we spent together, I never got the impression that my father enjoyed being with me. Apparently, he doted on me (or so I’ve been told by my jealous brother and sister), but he was uncomfortable expressing his emotions and didn’t seem to care about my interests and goals. He was an unhappy man who spent most of our time together talking about himself.
Years later, in therapy, I tried to understand my relationship with my father, but with little success. Then I had a son, and I struggled myself with the competing demands of career and family, of time spent alone and time spent with my son. Like my father, I wanted to tell my son about my world, though I knew he wouldn’t understand.
After my mother died, we twice brought my father east to visit us. He was the same, perhaps more so. He told stories I’d heard hundreds of times, talked only about himself, and was uninterested in what I was doing, how my life was going, and even what his grandson was like.
Driving him to the airport at the end of his last visit, I began to talk openly and was soon on the verge of tears. I explained that, until I had Daniel, I’d never realized how much he’d had to juggle, and how hard it must have been sometimes. I could hardly speak. “I just want to say that I appreciate everything you did for me,” I concluded. “I love you, Dad.”
My father looked out the window at the Boston skyline in the distance and said, “I’ve always liked the Hancock Building much better than the Prudential.”
I never saw him again; he died nine months later. Afterward, my sister told me that he’d been quite moved by what I’d said.
Jeffrey M. Wagner
Brentwood, New Hampshire
Back in the forties, most farmers didn’t have a hay baler, so they had to haul loads of loose hay. One day, my father got the idea to build a hayrack for his new pickup out of two-by-fours. He spent half the morning building the rack, with me handing him his tools. When he was done, he put me behind the wheel for a test run; I was just learning to drive. Going from one field to the next, I caught the new rack on the granite gatepost and smashed it to bits.
My father’s anger was terrible. He threw the broken pieces of the rack into the back of the pickup and spent the rest of the morning building another. This time, he drove. The too-wide rack hit the side of the narrow gate and was torn apart again.
At fifteen, I may have been dumb about a lot of things, but I was smart enough not to laugh.
Early morning is different here at my father’s house. There’s no smell of breakfast, no sound of my mother’s voice, full of love, as she calls for my sister and me to get up. It’s deathly quiet except for the occasional bird song. But the silence is filled with my father’s presence. I get up early to use the bathroom and look in on him as he sleeps. I wouldn’t have believed he needed rest if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes. His six-foot frame is motionless but taut, as if ready to leap up at any moment.
I’ve been here for a few days now, and I miss my mother and sister terribly. I even long to see my sister squinch up her eyes at me and say, “You look just like your daddy,” for no apparent reason other than I’ve made her mad. She obviously misunderstood when my mother said, “You’re so handsome; you look just like your daddy, with his smart black self.”
Recently, though, my mom hit me with her fist, because I am getting “too big for my britches.” She keeps screaming about how my friends are thugs, and how she “raised me better than that.”
“Get dressed,” my dad says, appearing in the doorway. Then he disappears again, quickly and quietly, having given me my “good morning.” I wonder if he knows my friends are thugs and that I’ve been giving Mom a hard time. I want to tell him that she’s been giving me a hard time, too, but I doubt I’ll get the chance. He hasn’t said much to me since I arrived, except to lay out the rules.
Once dressed, I play a video game while awaiting further instructions. My dad’s on the phone. I hear him laugh for the first time since I arrived: a full, genuine laugh, not too loud or too long. He’s pacing back and forth in the living room as he talks. He sounds smart. I can tell the person on the other end is probably a woman by the way his voice dips before he laughs.
As I ride to breakfast in the back seat of my father’s car, I hear my mom’s voice like a familiar melody in my head: “Baby, I’ll always love you. Be good and learn from your daddy.” She told me this when I left, and I wondered what he had to teach me.
Since then, I’ve been watching him closely, learning all I can, just like Mom said. I’ve learned that men don’t talk much or show too much affection. This is hard for me to get used to, always having been the center of attention, the beloved “man of the house.” I study my father’s profile. He gives off an air of strength. I decide that this confirms the rumors I’ve heard about him being a Black Panther before I was born. His hair is cut close and brushed back, the way my mom has always told me to brush mine, “ ’cause that’s the way a man wears his hair.” His face is shaved, his mouth a strong line, and his eyes are keenly aware. He sits erect, both hands on the wheel. I don’t detect hostility in him — just discipline, something else I hope I’ll eventually learn.
When we arrive at the restaurant, I walk behind him, observing his walk: even and purposeful. I’ll walk like that someday, I think. The restaurant staff calls him sir. Never before have I seen a man of color treated with such respect. I order eggs with melted cheese, just like my father. We eat in silence as the waitress hovers nearby, smiling at the picture we make: a father and son having breakfast.
The picture was short-lived. I soon ran away, back to my mother’s house, to familiar territory. If I had stayed, maybe I wouldn’t be in prison now.
My dad called all of us into the kitchen for a family meeting. I didn’t know what was happening. We’d never had a family meeting before. I took a seat on a dark wood stool and listened as my father announced that he had just come back from Mexico. I was nine; all I knew about Mexico was that we’d been to Tijuana the summer before, as part of a three-week family vacation down the California coast. “Mexico!” I blurted out. Why hadn’t I gotten to go this time? Was there a rule about how often nine-year-olds got to go to Mexico?
“Well, . . .” my dad started.
“Tell them, David,” my mother whispered to him as if coaxing a child.
My sister glared at me and said, “Dad went to Mexico to get a divorce from Mom, you idiot!” Then she punched me in the arm.
I ran to my bedroom and slammed the door so hard that my Charlie Brown piggy bank rattled off its shelf and fell to the floor with a crash. I retreated to my “playhouse”: a refrigerator box I had found on the street and painted white with a red roof. I’d cut a door and three windows, and painted on black flower boxes full of pastel daisies. I had even painted my name on the imaginary mail slot on the door. Inside, I had a small wooden table and chairs that I had built in shop class and a “chandelier” — a night light that hung by an extension cord over the table.
My dad came into my bedroom, shut the door, and leaned with his back against it, his hands covering his face. Then he slid slowly down until he came to a crouch on the floor. I could see a white line on his finger where his wedding band had been.
I sat in my house, hoping he couldn’t see me, trying not to see him. I had never seen my dad cry. I thought I should go to him, but I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even speak.
“I’m sorry,” he mumbled. “I’m so sorry.” His apology frightened me more than his sobbing.
We stayed like that for what seemed like an hour as the room grew dark. Finally, he stopped crying, wiped his eyes, took a deep breath, and left. An hour later, my mom brought me dinner in my playhouse, and I sat at the table and ate it.
Every time I think about my older brother, I’m glad I was born a girl. I never wanted to grow up to be like my father — a brilliant, articulate man, but also a drunk. Our mother was our strength. She cooked and cleaned and didn’t fall down, or slur her words, or wet her pants. I would grow up to be like her; I would be OK. For my brother, it was different.
One Christmas Eve, Dad fell asleep dressed as Santa, the Scotch bottle at his side. He’d forgotten where he’d hidden the toys he’d made for us. Two weeks later, I found them under some paint rags in the garage: carved wooden farm animals for my brother, neatly lined up, ready for Christmas; and for me, a four-room doll house. It took only a second to kick in the balsa-wood partitions, leaving just an empty box.
Once, trying with drunken aim to kill a squirming chicken, Dad cut off his thumb at the first knuckle. While Mom took him to the emergency room, my brother and I stayed home and made a call to Dad’s AA sponsor. My brother’s hand trembled as he dialed the number. “Our dad is drunk,” he said into the phone. “He cut off his thumb. Can you come over?”
The voice at the other end was gruff: “He has to call if he wants help.”
My brother hung up and said, “I’ll tell you one thing: I’ll never do this to my children.”
Close to the end of my father’s life, he was hospitalized to have both legs amputated because of gangrene. My brother had finally convinced him to do it. Ten years before, my brother had lost most of his left hand in an accident at his construction job, and he assured Dad that amputation wasn’t so bad. My father turned his back on us and said, “I will never forgive any of you for this.” My brother never saw him again.
My brother worked hard to provide his own family with a good home. In spite of his missing hand, he put in a brick patio and set up swings. He opened his house to all his children’s friends. At a party for his youngest girl, he said to me, the ice tinkling in his glass of Scotch, “I’m here for them. I know how bad it can be. I’ll do anything to keep them from living like we did.”
My brother is in his fifties now, about the same age Dad was when he lost his legs. He is almost always drunk and has fallen on his face many times. One eye is swollen shut, the other protrudes from its socket. His son called me long-distance last week and pleaded, “Can’t you do something?”
Today, when I see my brother passed out on the couch, his face slack, his fly open, his leg swollen with edema, I mistake him for our father.
My mother explains that she didn’t intend to show my father the pictures of my new tattoos. “They fell out of your letter when he was moving the dresser,” she says, “and landed on the floor right in front of him. He was very upset, but I told him you were forty years old and had a right to make your own decisions.”
When my father gets on the phone, I ask why he gets so upset every time I acquire a new tattoo. I never set out to offend him.
He tells me that God is the most important thing in his life, and that my tattoos don’t fit with his religious beliefs. “I feel I’ve failed somehow,” he says, “by not passing on the importance of God and church to you.”
I’m stunned. Although my beliefs and practices are quite different from my father’s, I have always felt that he gave me a strong spiritual foundation. “Dad,” I say, “I don’t go to church because your religion condemns me for being a gay man. What’s that got to do with tattoos?”
“You can’t help being gay,” my father replies, “but you can control whether or not you get a tattoo.”
It breaks my heart to visit my friend’s home during the summer, because almost every afternoon I find him out back tossing a baseball with his teenage son. One summer, his son mastered the curve ball; the next, it was the knuckler.
I used to love playing baseball as a child. At seven I already had a precociously strong and accurate throwing arm from hours of practicing against the side of the barn, by myself. And I was quick with the bat — a skill I learned by tossing a ball up and hitting it on its way down.
I remember the excitement I felt the one time my father asked if I wanted to play catch. I was nine. I ran for my mitt and a ball, and we stood across the lawn from each other and began to throw. His throws were hard — so hard I was barely able to move my mitt fast enough to catch them. They grew harder and harder until finally I missed one, and the ball slammed into my cheek. I had to be taken to the hospital. I quit playing baseball after that.
My father always had some excuse for his violence. This time he said it had all been an accident. Having no frame of reference by which to judge, I believed him — until last year, when I saw my friend playing catch with his younger son, who is about nine. Watching the gentle arc of my friend’s throws, I realized that no sane father would ever, even by accident, throw a ball at his son hard enough to injure him.
Crescent City, California
While I was growing up, my father always hugged or kissed me when he got home from work or a trip. We even gave each other back rubs from time to time. (We still do, now that I’m thirty-five and he’s nearly seventy.)
I always thought my dad was a regular sort of father, and that our displays of affection were normal behavior between fathers and sons. After I left home, I was stunned to learn that many of my male friends had hugged their fathers for the first time at age twenty-five or thirty. I was proud of the kind of relationship my father and I had, but sad to discover that it was so rare.
My dad always concocted special punishments for me, and our forty-acre farm never seemed so big as when he made me “run fences.”
On Sundays, driven to a grim frenzy by a mixture of televised football and Stroh’s beer, my father would venture outside, full of weekend-warrior glory, and work on one of his many unfinished projects: digging post holes, painting the house, and so on. I tried to avoid him, but invariably I’d be caught and enlisted to help: “Get over here. . . . Hold this. . . . No, that way. . . . What are you thinking? Jesus Christ, that’s it!” he’d yell. “Run fences!”
I’d scramble between the split rails and begin running, down into the valley by the marsh, over to the fence on the far side of our property, and back. Then to the far side and back again. And again.
His work for the day complete, my father would sit on the fence and, at my every approach, smack me in the head with a pair of tightly clenched work gloves and shout, “Get a move on, mister!”
As the sun dipped low and my pants grew stained with grass and piss, my mother would come out of the house and rescue me.
I grew up on a small farm in southern Illinois. It was the custom then for farmers to paint their names on the side of their farm trucks. When the sign painter came to paint our truck, my dad told me it would read, WILLIAM FRANK AND SONS. I was confused; my dad also had two daughters (including me). “Shouldn’t it be ‘William Frank and Sons and Daughters’?” I asked. My father just laughed.
I couldn’t understand why a man would be proud of his sons but not his daughters. I still can’t.
I’ve always been afraid of ending up like my dad, whose idiosyncrasies often embarrass me. He’s a curious character, an East Coast liberal who’s lived more than half his life in conservative South Dakota.
I moved in with him following the divorce, and lived there from fifth grade through high school. His house had thousands of books, hundreds of LPs, but no TV. I begged him for a Game Boy. I begged him to take the political bumper stickers off his car. I made caustic remarks about the frayed sweaters and faded jeans he wore to work as a legal-aid lawyer. In my desire to fit in, I was hyperconscious of his stubborn eccentricity.
I felt like a foreigner in South Dakota, so after high school I decided to go to college on the East Coast. I’ve been here only one semester, and my opinion of my dad has already changed immensely. I’ve learned about the existence of an underclass that was previously vague and hypothetical to me. I’ve come to respect Dad’s decision to minimize his consumption despite what he could have. I admire him for having spent most of his life helping individuals less fortunate than he, an example I’ve lately considered following.
When he came to visit me the other day, I was more amused than embarrassed to see him wearing one tan sock and one blue — because he’d lost one from each pair, he said. Though the thought of ending up exactly like my father is still sort of scary, I now see him as almost valiant, or at least kind of cool.
I couldn’t bear the thought of cleaning the garage, as my father had ordered. It was, and always would be, a total disaster in there; my father had no sense of organization. Besides, it was either that or play stickball with the other kids at Gunther Field, and I lived for the temporary escape that stickball afforded me. So I took forty cents from my father’s dresser and used it to pay my sister Mary to clean the garage. Then I got on my bike and headed to the park, feeling free.
After six blissful hours, I rode home and coasted up to the garage. Looking inside, I realized with horror that Mary hadn’t cleaned anything. I found her in front of the TV, licking her fingers; she had taken the money to the store and bought candy the minute I had left.
Mom came home and saw the candy, and Mary told her what had happened. That was it. My mother sent me upstairs to my room with no dinner to wait for my father to get home. I climbed the stairs, feeling nauseated. Please, I thought, let him be in a good mood. In my room, I buried myself beneath the covers and lay there in a fetal position, hoping Mom would forget to tell him. Finally, I drifted off into a fitful slumber, remembering, as if from a dream, the fly ball I had snagged earlier that day in the summer sun.
I awaken to find my father towering over me. He snatches me out of bed and orders me to put on my pants. As I struggle somewhat groggily to comply, he backhands me, knocking me to the floor. “Hurry up!” he yells. Oh, fuck, I think. Here we go.
He half drags, half throws me down the stairs. I know where we’re headed: the bathroom, because he’s discovered that I can’t squirm around or get away there. He takes off his belt and shouts for me to grab the toilet. The whipping is a long one, but it’s not enough to vent his rage. He grabs me by my collar, presses me against the bathroom door, and draws his huge fist back to punch me. Instinctively, I duck, and his knuckles break through the veneer of the door. He’s even madder now. “Don’t you move,” he says, and he leaves.
After a fruitless search through his disaster of a garage, my father finally finds my stickball bat where I left it on the porch. I’ve hit hundreds of Spauldings with that inch-and-a-quarter thick piece of wood. That bat is my escape from the torments of this house. I never imagined that I would see it held high over my father’s head as he prepared to hit me with it. I turn away, and the blow lands on my back. The bat breaks. Then my father brings the half that remains down over my head. My legs buckle, and for an instant, I think, Maybe if I collapse, he’ll stop, but then a voice inside warns against the danger of closing my eyes.
My father gets a bag of flour from the kitchen and pushes me out into the yard. It’s the middle of the night. I’m trying not to faint. He starts sprinkling flour from the bag onto the ground, outlining a rectangle about six feet by three feet in the grass. Then he stands back and asks, “Do you know what this is for?” A shovel lands at my feet. “It’s your grave.”
As I begin digging, he tells me he’s going to go to the hospital to see if his hand is broken, but minutes later I spot him in the shadows by the side of the house, watching me. After a while, he disappears, leaving me to my work.
When I’ve dug down four feet, my mother comes outside and asks, “What’s all this dirt doing on my lawn?” I tell her Daddy ordered me to dig a hole. “Get this dirt off my lawn,” she hollers, “right now!” I proceed to fill up the hole.
I have thrown in all but the last six inches of soil when my father pulls back into the driveway. Terrified, I nevertheless keep shoveling the dirt in. He looms over me and shouts, “I thought I told you to dig a hole!”
“Mommy told me to fill it up.”
“Dig that hole!”
At 2:30 A.M., I am again standing chest high in earth when my mother storms out of the house and tells me to go to bed.
For much of my childhood, my only direct interaction with my father was when he punished me, often for misbehavior reported to him by my mother. My father dutifully carried out these beatings, as well as a few given for reasons of his own, usually having little or nothing to do with my conduct. I learned early on to maintain a low profile around both my parents, to remain a moving target, to keep out of sight. For family, I depended on my four older siblings. My parents were those large, angry people who came home at night and were best avoided.
In 1961, after years of fighting and a number of affairs, my parents finally decided to get divorced. On some level, I was relieved. The plan was for my father to move out and find an apartment closer to where he worked. Early on the morning he was to leave, I woke up in the near darkness to the sound of him opening the outside door near my bedroom. When I sat up in bed, my father looked in, saw me, and said, in an almost pleading tone, “Mark?”
It was a surprise to hear my name cross his lips. He was not in the habit of calling us by our given names, but rather “you little bastard” or “you damn kid.” He came over to my bed, and I cowered a bit, not knowing what to expect. Then he put his arms around me, picked me up bodily, and said, “No matter what happens, I just want you to know that I love you very much.” He held me tight for maybe half a minute, then set me back down on my bed and left without another word.
More than ten years later, my father admitted that he had been a thoroughly lousy, violent parent, and he and I became good friends in the few years before his death — something I would never accomplish with my mother, who maintained to the end that they were merely “strict” and “did it for your own good; look how well you’ve all turned out!” (Indeed, only one out of the five of us was dead from suicide, and only one of the remaining four had served serious jail time.)
I’ve heard that babies who are not touched and handled lovingly die. I believe this to be true. I also believe that one predawn embrace from my father nearly forty years ago may have saved my life.
Mark A. Hetts
San Francisco, California
When my brother Joseph was nine, Dad built a pitcher’s mound in our back yard, intending to mold his only son into the perfect pitcher. As I lay daydreaming on my bed, I could hear my father putting Joe through his daily regimen of a hundred pitches. Dad’s coaching style was mostly to berate and belittle my brother. It must have worked on some level, because in junior high, Joseph became a star pitcher and all-round athlete, not to mention a straight-A student.
I once overheard my parents talking in hushed tones about how Joseph had an IQ of 180, and saying that this fact should be kept from him so that he wouldn’t get “bigheaded.” Truth was, anyone could tell Joe was smart. He loved chess, intellectual discussions, and reading. Still, my father pushed Joe relentlessly to become the star athlete he himself had never been.
I know my father meant well; perhaps he just cared too much or didn’t know how to care the right way. Whatever the reason, he pushed my brother too far. In high school, Joseph dropped all sports and started drinking and doing drugs. His anger at our father was great, and he rarely missed a chance to disappoint him. In spite of his wild behavior, Joe maintained good grades and went to Berkeley on a scholarship. There, he sold pot, took acid, and eventually spent time in a mental hospital for what the doctors called “drug-induced schizophrenia.”
A few months shy of his nineteenth birthday, while driving alone on a winding road at a high speed, my brother crashed his car into a tree and died instantly.
I think of his death as a suicide.
When my son was about six, I began to hate him. Before that, he’d been a pure joy, but now I found myself growing furious at him for the smallest things. It wasn’t so much what he was doing that made me mad, but his carefree nature. I thought he was lazy and stupid, and just looking at him made my blood boil. For a while it looked as if my regular fits of irrational rage would break our family apart. But slowly, I began to understand that my anger wasn’t about me and my son, but about me and my father.
My dad was a tormented man, very intelligent and sensitive, but also sad and angry. His parents had shipped him and his brother off to military school when he was seven, and he’d stayed there until he was sixteen, with only brief visits home. This experience had hurt him deeply. At some point he’d found that alcohol numbed the pain. He was forty-three when he married my widowed mother and adopted her four kids. They had me, his only blood child, a year later.
I quickly became the light of his life. He opened his heart to me, but he had no sense of boundaries, and out flooded his pain as well as his love. Too young to understand, I just took it all in. Seeing the suffering in his eyes, I decided it must be my responsibility to ease it. He needed me — and only me — to be there for him. So I stopped playing and got to work. Externally, I became hyper-responsible and mature, but internally, I could never find peace. There was always something more I should be doing for him. To feel happy while my father was in such pain would have been the ultimate betrayal.
Now I had this little boy living in my house who had no responsibilities, no worries, no cares. I was insanely jealous: how dare he have fun when there was work to do, when there were wounded people to care for?
As I have untangled this web of father-son relationships, I have realized that, mixed with the pain, my father also gave me a strong and pure love. And I know that I am also passing on that love to my now fourteen-year-old son, and not the suffering of my father and the boy I once was.
Blue Lake, California
As a child, I didn’t know my father very well. My parents were divorced when I was three months old. My mother would drive my brother and me to San Francisco to visit him every now and then. (He’d never come to pick us up.) She once told me we’d cry when it was time to leave, but I don’t remember it. I do remember the dreaded scrape of my father’s whiskers when he’d kiss me good night, and the booze on his breath. To me it seemed a manly, adult smell. It was he who gave me my first sip of whiskey. It tasted pretty rough, but in time I grew to like it.
When I got older I’d drop by to see my dad once in a while. He lived with his mother in Oakland. He wouldn’t go out of his way to do anything for me, but if I showed up at their apartment, I was always welcome to crash on the floor.
Things got crazier between us as the years went by. Like the time he caught me shooting up in his car. Or the time he was so drunk he couldn’t make it home, so he slept on the floor of my hotel room. The next morning, I tried to buy him breakfast, but he begged me to give him the money instead so he could get a wake-up drink. Or when I was living in my van and he showed up blasted on brandy, with another bottle in his pocket. We sat there drinking until my girlfriend got back with the heroin and the cocaine. My dad kept making passes at her, but I didn’t even care. When it became obvious that he was neither going to shut up nor leave, I cooked up a couple of speedballs, and my girlfriend and I shot up while he kept going, on and on.
One day, after I had been paroled from prison (I forget which time), I went to see him in Oakland. Grandma was sitting in her rocker watching TV, and my dad was yakking away and drinking from a two-liter plastic jug of vodka. He offered me a drink, and I noticed some bits of food from his backwash floating in the bottle. I was torn between disgust and the desire to get drunk enough to tolerate sitting there in that lousy apartment with him. The booze won.
My grandma died this year. Dad never even went to see her in the hospital. I couldn’t go: I’m in prison serving a life sentence.
After Grandma died, Mom went to check on Dad. His front door was unlocked, so she went inside. Dad was passed out on the floor in his underwear and a T-shirt. He still had plenty of booze and cigarettes by the couch, so someone must have been going to the store for him. Mom sat down in Grandma’s rocker and watched Dad sleep. She said his legs were as white as marble and baby smooth, except for a shocking cluster of growths by his groin. She sat for a while in the quiet apartment, just rocking and listening to him breathe. Then she left without waking him.
By now, liquor has so damaged my father’s health that he can’t even go to the bathroom without a walker. He won’t be able to afford the apartment without Grandma, and pretty soon he’ll be homeless. It won’t be long before he dies. I wonder whether I’ll feel anything when that happens. There used to be something there, but now it’s disconnected, like a TV with snow on the screen and white noise hissing from the speaker.
Crescent City, California
My father broke my nose when I was a baby because I “cried too much.” In a picture taken when I was three, my nose looks like a small, misshapen lump of clay, concave on one side. As I grew, the disfigurement grew with me and became part of who I was, though it often made people uncomfortable. My sense of smell is very dim, and maybe that is another reason I have never felt safe. The funny thing is, had my nose not been broken, it would have looked just like his.
At the age of eight, I stopped speaking to my father. I never again addressed him directly, and referred to him only by his first name when talking to others — never as “Dad.” Even as an adult, when I lay in a hospital bed for a month with a life-threatening illness, and he, dying from lung cancer himself, sat still and dark and Neolithic in the chair across from me — even then, I only nodded in response to his questions.
My father was known to try to put cigarettes out on me when I was a toddler. He was a sex addict, and as such had no preferences: my younger sister, his sister-in-law, the dog.
By comparison, the event that caused me to stop speaking to him was rather minor. One day, during another of his alcoholic rages, he burst into my bedroom, broke all my records, and smashed my guitar to pieces. My dream was to become a musician. These things were my only comforts. When he destroyed them, I lost all love for him.
I have since become a successful musician and married a good woman who likes to dance for our cats. My father died almost two years ago. I miss him now and then, when I cast about for an enemy and find my wife. If I want to be as cruel as possible, I call her by his first name. “You are just like him,” I say. We never fought like this before he died. I suppose I am fighting his ghost.
The light from the basement window shone on the satiny yellow material of my father’s shorts. They were lined with purple trim and looked like a boxer’s shorts. Beneath them, I could see a large, rounded bulge just at the edge of the purple.
All four of us kids were standing around our father’s chair and looking over his shoulder at a diagram he was drawing, illustrating how the furnace worked. While the others followed the movement of my dad’s pencil and listened to his words, I secretly gazed at the bulge in his shorts, my heart pounding. I imagined just the tip of his penis peeking out around the purple trim. Nervously, I stood on my toes to get a better look.
My dad was not always around, and now that he was here, the desire to see and touch and smell him was enormous. I’d felt something similar when I’d stared at pictures of shirtless men in magazines, or when I’d spied on Uncle Billy as he held his large brown penis in his hand and peed into the basement sink after a night of drinking. But the urge that arose in me now was more powerful than any I’d known before.
Watching my dad’s legs open and close, his thighs pushing against this large mound in his pants, I wanted to reach over his shoulder and touch it. Was that wrong? Why? Who had said it was wrong? How did I know it was wrong? I didn’t. I just knew it wasn’t right. It wasn’t what a boy should do. But I wanted it so bad it made my stomach hurt. I might never get this chance again. Who knew when he would be around? If I touched him, would he stay away even longer? If I didn’t touch him, would I die?
Gerald A. James
For much of 1975, my life revolved around a self-imposed deadline to complete my dissertation. I lived in mortal fear of not finishing and spending the rest of my life driving a taxi. I plodded relentlessly toward my goal, but I’d regularly stop to read my father’s frequent letters. He wrote in longhand on legal pads, with leisurely attention to everyday details. Though rarely very personal, each letter conveyed his love by including me in the minutiae of his days. He signed them “C.,” for Coach.
My father, now retired, had been a junior-high-school physical-education teacher for thirty-eight years, and I had called him Coach for as long as I could remember. Even my mother referred to him, almost reverentially, as Coach. When I was a child, this way of addressing him puzzled me about as much as why we call water “water” or air “air.” As a self-righteous young man, however, I resented his status as a beloved coach to other boys, and I scorned him angrily, unaware of how much this hurt him. His letters now were overtures for a new connection between us.
Halfway through the summer of my dissertation, his gentle, newsy letters changed. Suddenly, they seemed filled with remorse and self-recrimination. He began telling me how he didn’t deserve my mother. I knew he was depressed and probably drinking as he wrote. Like many a droll, melancholic Irishman, my father had skirted alcoholism, remaining sober at least in part due to fear of his wife’s disapproval. I was frightened for him.
One hot evening in my sterile university office, I turned away from my data and wrote my father back. I told him that I loved him and was sorry that he was in such pain. I told him I felt helpless, but that I would do anything in my power to help if I could.
He wrote back quickly to thank me for my concern. Most clearly, I remember that he asked me to start calling him “Dad.”
We never referred to this exchange again. I no longer called him Coach, and his letters became newsy and detailed once more. He always signed them, “Love, Dad.”
Raleigh, North Carolina
Each day at six o’clock, I’d watch our black Falcon wagon back into the driveway, and I’d wonder which father would get out of it tonight. Dad always wore his gray work clothes with his name stitched above the breast pocket, an unfiltered Camel dangling from his lips and a baseball cap covering his thinning hair. (As I got older, I learned to estimate his blood-alcohol level by the angle of his cap.) He reminded me of a big bear. Years of heavy, physical work had broadened his chest and shoulders, and overeating and drinking had thickened his middle. His face was ruddy and chubby, with a prominent nose and large ears. He walked like John Wayne — long strides with lots of trunk twisting. In his youth, he had been a dead ringer for Errol Flynn, but except for the remaining pencil-thin mustache, all resemblance to the movie star had been washed away by bourbon.
Dad would sometimes call out to me in his soft Southern drawl, and his greeting would give him away. If he said, “Howdy-do,” I’d know he’d been drinking. (My father was naturally shy and soft-spoken, and his sober greeting was much more . . . well, sober.) By the time he reached the porch, I would smell his scent: a not unpleasant mixture of iron dust, welding smoke, sweat, pipe tobacco, Camels, and Aqua Velva. I’d sniff, too, for the sweet, fruity smell of bourbon. If I found it — and I usually did — I knew the rest of the evening would be a crapshoot.
My father would sit in his chair, watching television and munching peanuts while he waited for dinner. He’d start slowly, with feigned pleasantries about the day. Then, as the whiskey seeped into his brain, he would begin to babble and rail at the television. Finally, he would turn on Mom. If we were lucky, he’d run out of steam early, and we’d hear the stairs squeak as he climbed to his bedroom.
In the quiet that followed, I’d think about my other father: the guy with the gentle handshake who loved a good joke and could play guitar better than anyone. I’d picture him cradling the instrument like a baby, his fingers dancing over the frets. I’d hear his awful but enthusiastic singing voice, wheezing like a broken-down calliope. I’d wonder where that father was, and whether he would show up the next evening at six o’clock.
My father was a Dixieland jazz musician and minor celebrity. As a child, I thought of him as a star and carried his instruments and shined his shoes, but as I became a teenager, I began to think that he cared more about the spotlight than about me.
At sixteen, I spent most of my spare time working on cars. Once, I bought a used engine that turned out to be a lemon. I complained to the seller, a boy my age, and he and his father came to my house to listen to the engine. It was obviously bad, but the boy’s father said, “Sorry, son, a deal’s a deal.” Just then, my father came out of the house and told the man, “A deal’s not a deal, ’cause your son lied. He told my boy the engine was good. Give him his money back.” The boy’s father looked at his son and asked, “Did you say the engine was OK?” The boy confessed that he had. His father slowly handed me back my seventy-five dollars and told me I could return the engine whenever it was convenient.
I saw my father differently that day: no stage makeup, no spotlight, no microphone. He wasn’t trying to entertain; he was acting like a father. I was grateful and proud of him, but I never told him that.
Thirty-two years later, my father and I stood on that same driveway having a garage sale to get rid of his old furniture. By the second day, almost everything was gone, and I left my father alone for a few minutes. When I returned, I saw a man loading Dad’s old dresser and mirror into his station wagon. I asked Dad if he’d collected the seventy dollars we were asking for it. He looked embarrassed and nervously admitted, “The guy only gave me seven dollars.”
I went over to the man and insisted there’d been a mistake. “The old man took my money,” he replied. “A deal’s a deal.” I shot back, “A deal’s not a deal when you take advantage of an old man.” Anger rose inside me at all the repairmen, salespeople, and mechanics who had gouged my father in his old age, and I pulled the dresser and mirror out of the man’s station wagon. He began swearing at me; his wife and child were crying; his mother was making the sign of the cross. He grabbed his seven dollars back and yelled, as he drove away, “You’re both senile!”
Dad and I stood there in the driveway for a minute in a mild state of shock. Then we laughed and started patting each other on the back. I knew Dad was grateful and proud of me. I wish he had told me.
New Denver, British Columbia