My dad’s name was Ed, but his friends called him Eddie. In old photos he is Jack Nicholson handsome, with devilish good looks and a mischievous gleam in his eye. I can see why my mom fell for him.
She was from Boston, the daughter of a Harvard-educated school principal who would send you from the table if you held your knife the wrong way. She went to a women’s college in Maryland, and, after graduation and a stint with Procter & Gamble in Ohio, she moved to Denver, Colorado, with a friend. That’s where she met my dad, a Colorado native and the much-adored only child of a nurse and a fire chief. He must have seemed as exotic to her as the rugged Rocky Mountains. He had blown the college-tuition money his parents had given him on trips to Cuba, then gotten a girl pregnant. (I have a half-sibling I’ve never met.) He’d been sober for two years by the time he met my mom, but after they were married, he bought a bar and fell off the wagon. He sold the bar, became an insurance agent, and quit drinking again — for a while.
I can hardly remember my parents as a married couple. What I recall most are the weekends when I’d wait for Dad to pick up my two sisters and me. Most of the time he wouldn’t show. When he did come, he’d pull up in my grandpa’s old lemon-yellow Cadillac with the eight-track player and tapes of Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and Don Ho. (This was the 1970s.) Dad always looked like he’d just woken up from a nap: his eyelids heavy, his teeth stained from coffee and cigarettes. But I liked the brown wingtip shoes he wore. They seemed dignified, the kind of shoes a father should wear.
He’d take my sisters and me to the Alcoholics Anonymous house, a Victorian mansion in downtown Denver. The air there was thick with cigarette smoke, the lights dim. He’d buy us ice cream and Dr Pepper at the cafe inside and introduce us to his friends. “These are my girls,” he’d say, puffed up with pride. The men — who had most likely failed their families, too — knew enough to feel sorry for us. Then we’d go to the arcade, where my dad would play pinball, his pants pockets sagging with quarters. I hated the arcade because it was dark and loud, and no matter how skillfully my dad pressed the flipper buttons, the metal ball would always sink down the drain in the end. There was no way for him to win.
Sometimes we’d go to Stapleton Airport, sit on the Cadillac’s roof, and watch the planes take off. Dad told us one of our relatives was a Stapleton. “Isn’t that something? You girls are related to an airport!” He would put his fingers in his mouth and let out a loud, wet whistle every time the belly of a jet passed over us. “There’s a Pan Am — the greatest airline in the world!”
He also whistled at the bighorn sheep we saw when he took us to the mountains. He’d swear at the hippie mountain climbers and steer the car down Pike’s Peak with his knees, a Mountain Dew between his thighs and a cigarette perched on his bottom lip, one hairy arm resting along the top of the front seat, the other out the window. When he told us about his friends who’d died when their cars had flown off the road, my sisters and I would squeeze together in the back seat. He’d smile at our fear, revealing a gold crown he said was made from gold flake he’d stolen when he’d scaled the dome of the state capitol.
Dad loved the Rockies and was proud that his daughters were third-generation Coloradans. He told us about the ranch his grandfather had lost during the Depression, how it had been almost as big as the entire state. Everything was big in Dad’s recollection. My mom warned me that his stories were all lies, but I wanted to believe them. I thought they could elevate us somehow.
Every outing with my father involved sugar. He had diabetes, but that didn’t keep him from eating doughnuts, Key lime pie, and Marathon candy bars. He’d take us to Big Boy for malts, then to 7-Eleven so we could buy candy with the “mad money” he gave us. My mom would scream at him when he dropped us off with our brown bags of sweets. I’d go to my room, listen to Elton John, suck on a jawbreaker, and watch the fish swim around in the aquarium my dad had given me, even though I’d asked for an Easy-Bake Oven.
As I got older, I heard my mom talk about how my dad refused to take his lithium, whatever that was. He started to wear silver rings with hunks of turquoise, and fishnet shirts that embarrassed me because his curly black chest hair poked through the mesh. I didn’t understand the point of a shirt like that, just like I didn’t understand what it meant when my mom called him “manic-depressive.” At least my dad still wore his wingtip shoes.
Dad’s behavior became more erratic, and our weekends with him grew less frequent. My mom had the locks changed. One afternoon he kicked in the basement window while we were watching television. Not long after that, we found our Saint Bernard, Heidi, dead in the backyard, poisoned.
When my dad showed up at the house and gave my mom his gun — because, he told her, he was afraid he’d use it on us — she gathered up my sisters and me, and we all boarded a plane for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where our mother had lived once. I’d never been to Milwaukee. We had no family there, but it was far away from my dad.
We ended up in a seedy apartment on a road named Lovers Lane. I didn’t know much about class, but I knew from the torn screens and roaches at our new place that we’d dropped down a few rungs on the social ladder. I was relieved to be safe from my father but homesick for our house in sunny Colorado, the reassuring purple mountains in the distance. Milwaukee was flat and gray, and our apartment complex was filled with latchkey kids. A boy named Tab wanted to show me his “thing.” On Halloween a gang of boys pushed me into the bushes and stole my trick-or-treat candy. A sad, lonely woman named Ruth lived nearby and told us that she’d lost custody of her son because she was “sick.” She crossed her eyes and pointed to her temple, which I knew meant she was sick the way my dad was sick. She would show up at our apartment at all hours and try to lure my sisters and me over to her place with cans of soda.
My sisters and I returned to Denver when my grandpa died. I was nine. That’s when we discovered that Dad had turned our old house into a flophouse for his alcoholic friends. A guy who slept in our basement told us to call him “Uncle Harry.” The green shag carpet was pockmarked with cigarette burns. On the coffee table were copies of Playboy and Centerfold and an especially explicit magazine called Cheri. My aquarium was empty. When I asked my dad what he had done with the fish, he said they were “delicious,” and Uncle Harry laughed until he started coughing.
On our last night in Denver, Dad took my sisters and me to Jack in the Box. We ordered milkshakes, and he told us we were “real Western women,” which was why he couldn’t let us go back to Milwaukee, not ever. We would stay with him and never see our mother again. We sobbed and begged him to let us go home. My sister Karen says we threatened to stop talking to him, which made him change his mind, but I don’t remember this. In my memory I am huddled with my sisters in a vinyl booth one minute, and the next we are back in our crappy apartment on Lovers Lane with Ruth knocking at the door.
One night when I was ten, my mom woke up and found a thief in her bedroom. She grabbed a lamp and, waving it like a weapon, chased him down the stairs and out the patio doors, screaming our names as if they were a single word: “KarenChristiSheila!” The next day she sat on the couch in the dark, drinking Coors and plotting how to get us out of there. That’s when we moved to the Village of Whitefish Bay — or Whitefolks Bay, as some called it. We went from being poor in a place where nearly everyone was poor to being poor in a place where nearly everyone was rich.
We lived in a small house on the south side of Hampton Avenue. In the better neighborhoods to the north, tall Dutch-elm trees cast dappled shadows on the manicured lawns, and the homes had thick curtains, wallpaper, brass candlesticks, and reading nooks. It seemed all the parents were married, and every family owned a golden retriever so obedient it could be walked off the leash.
Meanwhile my mother, my sisters, and I were still eating government cheese. A friend of my mom’s scoured thrift stores to supplement our furniture with used pieces, including a desk that was missing a leg, so I had to prop my knees under it to keep it from falling over. On my first day of school I wore my favorite matching outfit and a pair of black sneakers, an ensemble that confused and disgusted my preppy classmates, who had names like Buffy and Kip and wore the collars of their polo shirts flipped up. Most of them were reading The Official Preppy Handbook, a tongue-in-cheek guide to the culture of prep-school elites. But I didn’t know the book was satire. Everyone at school took it seriously, so I did, too. It provided me with a set of rules at a time when I needed them most. I memorized the “preppy value system,” bought fake pearls from Walgreens, and pulled my ash-blond hair back in pink and green barrettes. I took to wearing my aunt Val’s faded pinstripe, button-down shirt — the only truly preppy thing I owned. She said it had been her favorite shirt when she was at Stanford. The buttons were brittle and the armpits as yellow as lemon rinds, but I loved it.
Every page of the Handbook revealed the excruciating truth of who I was. There was no trust fund set up in my name. I wouldn’t be going to boarding school or vacationing in Bermuda. Still, I found tremendous comfort in the manual’s introduction, which advised the reader to “stop thinking you’re a lost cause simply because you’ve never been to either the Harvard-Yale game or Martha’s Vineyard. Even Preppies had to learn at one point not to wear socks with loafers.” I underlined “stop thinking you’re a lost cause” twice. I also learned that I had good pedigree — at least, on my mom’s side. Of course, pedigree doesn’t matter much when you’re struggling to make the next mortgage payment. Mom had gotten a master’s degree and was starting a career as a speech pathologist. She cut her hair short and wore cat’s-eye glasses that made her look smart.
But then there was my dad, muddying up my genes. I blamed him for my pug nose. I wanted a nose that was sharp and thin and aristocratic-looking. I also blamed him for diverting my mother from her proper path in life. If it weren’t for him, she would have been like the other mothers in Whitefish Bay, who stayed home and had snacks waiting for their kids after school. If we’d remained in the low-rent Milwaukee apartment complex, I might have continued to think of my father as just another messed-up dad, like everyone else’s. In Whitefish Bay I began to see him as a complete loser. I kept him a secret from my friends, which was easy to do because he lived so far away. As far as they were concerned, I didn’t have a father. I often wished he would just disappear. He’d call every Sunday night, and my sisters and I would fight over which of us had to answer the phone while the others pretended to be unavailable.
One Sunday he called and announced that he was coming to visit. My stomach ached at the thought of spending time with him. I was scared of his sudden mood swings and worried he’d try to take us away again. Whitefish Bay wasn’t an easy place for me to live, but I’d found some security there with my mom and my sisters and my single-minded pursuit of proper preppy attire. I feared my dad would rub off on me — or, worse, that he already had.
But I also remembered the “mad money” he always gave me. Being a preppy was expensive. You had to wear the best clothing brands, the ones sold in Betty’s of Winnetka at Bayshore Mall. It was my favorite store, even though the saleswomen looked down their noses at me and everything there was priced excruciatingly out of reach. My mom was a master knitter and made beautiful sweaters, but nobody at school wore anything handmade. The girls wore the kind of sweaters you could buy at Betty’s: Dale of Norway cardigans with silver clasps. At school the girls checked each other’s clothing tags for authenticity. I had my eye on a pair of Gloria Vanderbilt jeans to replace the Toughskins my mom had bought for me at Sears. With the cash my father would bring, I’d show those saleswomen I wasn’t a lost cause.
I even allowed myself to fantasize that my dad had gotten himself together. Maybe he’d look like all my friends’ fathers in Whitefish Bay, who wore Irish-fisherman sweaters and boat shoes. He’d remarry my mom, who would quit her job. We would all learn to play tennis and sail, and we’d summer in the places listed in The Official Preppy Handbook, like Nantucket or the Hamptons — always an island, the book said, because islands are “ideal for people who see themselves as special.” I wanted more than anything else to see myself and my family as special.
But of course my father hadn’t gotten himself together. He was fat — and not chubby like before but obese. I could see a trail of belly hair between his stained Cuban shirt and his brown polyester pants. He breathed heavily. What little hair he had left on his head was uncombed. His nails were yellow and long, and there was a permanent stain between his fingers, like a bruise, where he held his cigarettes. He stank of Old Spice and nicotine. He still wore his wingtips, but now they looked to me like clown shoes. His bare ankles were covered with ulcers from diabetes.
The proper response to my dad’s shocking decline would have been pity, which is what my older sister, Karen, felt. I could tell by the way she looked at him. My younger sister, Sheila, who’d been only four when we’d left Denver, hardly remembered our father. To her he was a friendly stranger.
I, on the other hand, viewed him through the cold, judgmental lens of the Handbook, which helped me determine all the ways he didn’t measure up. The section on abbreviations was particularly useful: he was T.T.F.W. (Too Tacky for Words), F.T.P. (Falling to Pieces), and T.B.A. (To Be Avoided).
Dad wanted to take us out to dinner. I usually asked to go to Heinemann’s, but we couldn’t possibly be seen with him in the social epicenter of the village. Karen suggested Denny’s. Then my dad did the strangest thing: he called a taxi. I didn’t even know there were taxis in Whitefish Bay. When it arrived, he introduced us to the driver as “my girls,” the same way he used to introduce us to the guys at the AA house. From the back seat, I fixed my gaze on the acne on my dad’s neck, where his skin had become flushed red and marred with stretch marks. When he reached back and tousled my hair, I slid down, not wanting to be seen by anyone. I smoothed my hair and readjusted my pink and green barrettes.
At the restaurant Dad ordered us all sodas and milkshakes and burgers. I couldn’t eat, and I also couldn’t stand to watch him wolf down his food. He lacked the poise and self-control most people in Whitefish Bay possessed. He couldn’t say no to anything: not to a drink or a prescription pill or a huge slice of German chocolate cake.
He asked us how school was, and we all said fine. He asked if we went to church, and we all said yes, though he knew we were lying. “You need church,” he said, his voice loud, booming. I could feel everyone’s eyes on us, the way I had back in Denver after the cops had been called in response to one of my dad’s many manic episodes.
“When you hit rock bottom,” my dad said, “that’s when you need God. It could happen to you. You’ll see.”
I swore to myself that it would never happen to me. Then I said I had to go to the bathroom, where I stayed for a long time. My stomach hurt. I wanted to scream or hit someone or throw something at the wall. Eventually Karen joined me. We stood at the mirror and applied thick coats of bubble-gum-flavored lip gloss and didn’t say a word.
When we slipped back into the vinyl booth, my dad opened his billfold, revealing not nearly as much cash as I’d hoped. “How about I take you girls on a shopping spree?” he said.
We entered the mall through Sears. My dad, in his massive trench coat, didn’t seem to belong in the bright, well-scrubbed department store. Betty’s was at the far end of the mall, on the other side of the food court and the water fountain. I walked cautiously, as attentive as a soldier on patrol. It was easy to keep my distance from my dad because he was slow, his breathing labored. I wasn’t afraid of him anymore, only of what he represented. All his bluster and charm had been stripped away, leaving just a man — a pathetic man. It was the first time I’d ever thought of him that way, and it hurt. He was lonely. His parents were dead. He had no siblings. And he was still hung up on my mom, who hated him. I couldn’t bear the pressing weight of this new knowledge: that we were all he had.
I wished I could muster the confidence to show him some kindness, to make him feel good about the visit. But I was in Whitefish Bay, a place where people took great pains to maintain appearances.
“Can’t you just give me some dinero?” I said. Dinero is how the cool girls at school referred to money. “I’ll meet up with you later.”
“Hell, no,” my Dad said. “This is a gift. Let me buy something for you.” He sounded almost desperate. My mom had warned us not to let him buy our love while he owed her child support.
I heard laughter, and just ahead, near the fountain, I spied Carrie and Jenny and Buffy in their red-tag Levi’s and Tretorn shoes. Beyond them was the neon glow of the Betty’s of Winnetka sign, the W shaped like a butterfly taking flight. I thought of the navy-blue Dale of Norway sweater I’d asked the saleswoman to put on hold for me because it was so darling. I thought of how badly I wanted the Pappagallo handbag with the mother-of-pearl buttons and those Vanderbilt jeans with the authentic gold-swan logo stitched above the front pocket.
The girls got closer, their laughter shrill and teasing.
“I don’t want anything,” I told my father.
“Sure you want something. Every kid wants something.” He started walking forward. I could feel the girls’ stares.
“I just want to go home!”
I dashed back to Sears and hid behind the towel display, my eyes hot with tears. I spied on my dad as he entered the store to look for me. “Chris?” he said. Nobody in Whitefish Bay knew me as Chris. His big shoes clomped against the linoleum, and the overhead lights reflected off his bald spot. He looked lost. I envied my younger sister, too little to understand what was happening, who walked with her tiny hand in my dad’s fat one.
I eventually let my dad buy me something at Sears so we could leave. The next day, a Sunday, he wanted to take my sisters and me to church. There was no way I could go with him to the Catholic church near our house. Everyone went there.
When the dreaded taxi arrived, I told the driver to take us to the chapel at the hospital; my social-studies teacher had mentioned going there with her sick aunt. It turned out it was all the way across town — an expensive trip — and I felt bad as my dad counted out the bills to pay the driver.
The few people in the chapel hardly noticed us when we walked in. One woman was crying. This was not a church where people went every Sunday. This was a place where people sought comfort after a bad diagnosis or a failed surgery. This was a place where people came to pray for a miracle.
My dad entered the chapel with reverence. He made a big show of kneeling and making the sign of the cross before he sat on a vinyl hospital chair. There was no natural light, just a wheel with translucent colors spinning over the recessed bulbs in the ceiling to mimic the effect of stained glass. The air smelled like the hydrogen peroxide I put in my hair to make it lighter, not like the incense and candles at the church we’d gone to in Denver.
“Let’s pray,” my dad said.
What was I supposed to pray for? I could have prayed for him to get better, but that would have meant that I would see him more often, and I didn’t want that, because seeing him made me feel so awful.
He reached for my hand. His palm was fleshy and damp but familiar, the same hand I’d held many times before. Its warmth made it difficult for me to maintain the cold hardness I was trying to cultivate. When I attempted to pull my hand from his grip, he gave it a squeeze.
“Everyone’s got something to pray for,” he said. He bent his head and closed his eyes. I felt as if he’d given me a choice: to become more compassionate in the face of his suffering, or to blame him for the suffering we’d experienced because of him; to acknowledge him as my parent, or to separate myself from him as completely as possible. I wasn’t equipped to make this choice. I was just a teenager who wanted to fit in. I thought about the carpenter pants and the Barbie styling head I’d let him buy me at Sears, just before we’d left the mall. I decided that, as soon as my father was gone, I’d return them and use the money to buy something at Betty’s instead.
For years after that visit I tried not to think about my father, who remained safely tucked away in Denver like a secret, but he was with me anyway: whenever I felt anxiety over a stain or a missing button; in the way I feared every extra pound, every mistake. I saw him in my heavy-lidded eyes, my pug nose, my square chin, my too-loud laugh.
Sometimes I’d daydream about visiting him and helping him lose weight with an aggressive diet and boxing-gym workouts. But the most I ever did was answer his occasional calls, always made from a pay phone. Our conversations improved once I got to college. I’d tell him about movies I’d reviewed for the campus newspaper and even send clippings to his P.O. box. He’d ask if I had a boyfriend and caution me that most men thought of girls as just “notches on their bedpost.” He also told me to be careful with booze; he’d known he was an alcoholic from his first sip. Whenever the operator came on the line and informed him his time was running out, he’d slip another quarter into the slot. I pictured his pockets so full of coins they sagged, the quarters jingling.
When I was twenty-one, a decade after my dad’s only visit to Whitefish Bay, the Denver coroner’s office called my mother’s house. Mom wasn’t home, so Sheila took the call. They told her our father had “expired” after a massive heart attack. It had taken them a few days to find his next of kin. I imagined his body lying in a morgue somewhere, JOHN DOE typed on the manila tag hanging from his toe.
I initially experienced a sense of relief, as if the problem of my father had finally been solved. The metal pinball had sunk away forever, the game lost. Then I felt guilty for feeling that way.
We all went to Denver for his funeral. The elderly priest read from the wrong notes and referred to my dad as “she.” Half the fifty or so people in the downtown cathedral looked homeless. Maybe they were there for the free food at the wake, I thought. I figured that was something homeless people did.
After the service we met with the state clerk in the church break room. We sat at a table next to a Pepsi machine while she told us that my father had been in and out of the hospital for diabetic comas and had let his life insurance lapse. There was only one small policy left, which seemed appropriate somehow: mad money. She handed us an envelope containing his smudged reading glasses, some well-thumbed prayer cards from his parents’ funerals, and, oddly, an X-ray of his hips. Taped to the X-ray was a photo of our mom taking a bite of their wedding cake.
I asked for the key to his apartment, wanting to see where and how he’d lived. The clerk’s expression changed. She shook her head, pointed to an old suitcase and a cardboard box of belongings on the floor, and said she was sorry. I realized the obvious: He’d died homeless. The mourners at his funeral had been my dad’s friends.
We picked up his ashes. Some were fine, but there were also chunks of bone as big as knuckles. Karen said the remains might not all be his; the crematorium workers scoop up whatever’s left at the bottom. “Nobody knows the difference,” she said.
Later that day we scattered the ashes in the mountains our father had loved.
I recently returned to Denver and spent an afternoon in a neighborhood called SoBo. It had once been run-down, and I wondered if my father had ever slept on the benches there, outside the art-deco Mayan Theater, where they now show art films, or panhandled near the sleek restaurant where I ate avocado toast with friends.
Later that evening I went to the Alcoholics Anonymous house that my father had taken my sisters and me to on his custody weekends. The brick mansion with the sweeping front porch was just as I’d remembered it. When I walked through the doors, I saw the AA logo carved into the wood paneling at the end of the hallway. The thick haze of cigarette smoke was gone, and the walls, once painted wine red, were now bright white. Shiny new tile covered the floor, and the heavy, upholstered furniture in the lobby had been replaced.
I had intended to slip in and out unnoticed, just to see the place once more, but an older woman at the reception area asked if she could help me. Her manner was welcoming. I told her I’d spent time there when I was a girl.
“Do you remember me?” she asked. “They call me Peppermint Patti.”
I did. I remembered Patti as clearly as I did the Denver of my childhood: the quality of light and the thinness of the air. She asked my father’s name.
“Ed,” I said. “Ed Geiger.”
“You mean Eddie?”
Patti pulled out a set of keys and unlocked the door to the room I remembered best: the cafe. It seemed smaller but was otherwise almost unchanged, complete with the spinning bar stools where my sisters and I had sat and ordered ice cream and Dr Peppers.
Patti asked what had happened to my father.
As if I were in a confessional at church, I told her everything: the Sunday phone calls, the diabetic comas, the awful funeral service, the cardboard box and suitcase.
It was the sort of story she’d heard many times before. “He was one of those who didn’t stay sober much,” she recalled.
I’d always thought of the AA house as a sad, oppressive place where private suffering became public; where people confronted their failures and wrestled with the knowledge of the harm they’d done. Whitefish Bay had seemed like a refuge from all that, a place where you could learn to live a proper life. Standing there with Peppermint Patti, though, I realized that the opposite was true. A real refuge is where people accept you the way you are.