There is something beautiful about all scars of whatever nature. A scar always means the hurt is over, the wound is closed and healed, done with.
— Harry Crews
I loved my father’s body. It worried me, too. At eight years old I marveled at the dark veins of his feet, like ridged worms under the pale skin, carrying his overworked blood as he plowed the fields at home and pulled double shifts at the ceiling-tile factory. I’d cry when I saw his blistered soles, sulk if he suffered another scraped knuckle, another bruised forearm. I wanted to heal him. The little church our mother took us to in Terre Haute, Indiana, had a pastor with a malformed right arm who told the congregation that whatever physical ailments we endured in this life would be wiped away once we reached the promised land. I worried my father, who didn’t go to church, would spend the afterlife with all his scars, all his leg pains, all the aches in his lungs lodged there for eternity.
As a small boy he’d contracted polio, which had attacked his left leg. Our mother always told my siblings and me that when she’d first laid eyes on him in sixth grade, she’d known he was hers, even if he did limp. I didn’t know what polio was, but it sounded scary, and he had survived it. This helped form my view of him as someone who could survive almost anything. Like Wile E. Coyote, he might get hurt and maimed, but he never, ever gave up.
Dan Horace Crandell was born on a sleigh on Valentine’s Day 1939 in Clay County, Indiana. His parents had waited too long to make the trip to the doctor in town, so my father’s first breaths were taken behind two mules. He was the baby of the family, having a brother thirteen years older and a sister with more than a decade between them. The family sharecropped and raised beef cattle, specifically Angus, which my grandfather Crandell believed to be the most perfect breed: intelligent, loyal, resilient, and dignified. Holsteins and Herefords were brutes, he said, thick-skulled and obstinate, but his Angus were to be revered: the lovely cows, so refined in their excellent mothering; the bulls like onyx boulders afoot. My father’s work life began with performing chores in blizzards, using a sledgehammer to bust up the thick ice in frozen water troughs. Thirty years later he would demonstrate his technique to my brothers and me, sending shards of rime flying, showing us how to fish out the large hunks of ice to keep the animals’ drinking water from going solid overnight. As always, he preached the consequences of not doing a job correctly, which could lead to injury or illness: Watch that your clothing doesn’t get caught in the machinery; it will suck you in. Listen to your gut when herding steers; they can turn and trample you. Look out for groundhog holes in the fields; they’ll break your leg.
Though he wanted us to be cautious, he wasn’t as mindful of his own safety. Once, he ripped open his hand while working underneath a greasy corn picker, attempting to loosen nuts from bolts so corroded they might have come from a shipwreck at the bottom of the ocean. Shortly after that, when I was nine, he suffered severe burns from an accident involving anhydrous ammonia, a chemical used to add nitrogen to the soil. It arrived in a long white tank shaped like a pill, and we watched from the porch as a stranger showed Dad all the safety valves and hose connections. Though it reliably increased yields, our father was reluctant to use it, seeing it as cheating nature. When released from the tank, it would form a toxic gas. We had heard that a man over in Grant County had almost died from only thirty seconds of exposure. The rumor was it sucked the moisture out of you, like an invisible movie monster that fed on eyeballs and tongues. My father would later tell us how, at the feedstore, one of the farmers had warned, “Watch it, Dan. That shit will eat you up and leave nothing but a dry husk.”
My father accidentally caught a faceful that left him nearly blind for five days. I welcomed the opportunity to care for him, taking his hand to lead him to the dinner table for meals or to the porch for a smoke. His eyes were so swollen he looked like a boxer KO’d in the fifteenth round. The skin of his hands was lobster red and peeling off in strips, like old barn paint. Leading him around, I felt as if I were repaying him for all the birthday clothes, lunch money, Christmas gifts, and food he’d provided. The truth was, I secretly hoped I could go on escorting him from room to room for good, but my father rallied, as he always did, and in less than two weeks he was back in the fields and signing up for extra shifts at the factory. His hands, which he’d used to shield his face, would always be a slightly mottled pink and taupe, as if someone had tried to cover the raw spots with cosmetics.
That same spring I had an accident of my own. My brothers and I were feeding the sows in the pasture while Mom and Dad worked on separate factory floors in distant parts of the county. They were hoping to save enough for a down payment on their own farm; we were sharecroppers, which meant the landlord took most of the profits from our labors. That day my brothers and I were rushing, and there was a clog in the auger: wet corn jamming the belt on the motor. I had seen my brothers reach for a clog and yank it out quick, as if it were electrified. I tried but was too slow. The motor belt ripped most of the middle finger from my right hand. Not only had I not followed our father’s instructions, but now there would be bills from the emergency room.
That night I was lying on the ratty davenport, a hand-me-down from our aunt Linda, when my father sat down by my side. It was after 4 AM, and he’d just gotten home from a twelve-hour shift at the factory. My hand was bandaged in white gauze and covered with tape. It throbbed like my beating heart, and I thought maybe I had a complication. In the weak light he smiled at me, his dark eyes shiny and worried. He didn’t speak, just sat with me. I dozed off, and when I awoke again, he was gone, but the quilts and comforters had been pulled up to my chin. A new glass of orange juice was on the small end table. Atop my blanketed chest sat my favorite stuffed pig.
A decade later I took a job at the ceiling-tile factory where my father worked — a compound of gray-metal and pocked-aluminum buildings. The iron doors’ rusty hinges made a high-pitched caterwauling when the wind blew. I would soon be the first in my family to attend college, and the Local 563 Paper-Workers’ Union had an informal agreement with management that any member whose son or daughter would be going to a university in the fall could apply for a summer job. I was grateful to get the position, since I didn’t have any other way of paying my tuition. Also I was eager to see my father at work and get to know the many docks, cupolas, forklifts, and production lines that had injured him. Of course, I’d been to the factory many times as a child, mostly with my siblings and mother to deliver Dad’s dinner. But this would be different: I’d be a worker, a union member, privy to the secrets of labor.
My first job assignment was in the wool mill, where furnaces belched heat and soot from smokestacks that reached like massive arms into the dingy skies above. I rode with my father to and from work in his battered Chevy pickup. That first day he gave me one of his cautionary speeches: “The Rockwool looks like cotton, but it often has hot coals hidden inside. Always wear your gloves.” He held out his left palm to show me a familiar round, slick scar in the center, the size of a fifty-cent piece. I had always attributed it to farmwork. Unlike when I was a child, I couldn’t caress his wounds now. His body was off-limits. Though he never said as much, I knew I was supposed to be a man, and to act like one: keep my head down, work, be polite, and treat him like a union brother, nothing more.
In my third week at the factory, management announced they were bringing in crews to remove asbestos from the old buildings. The dangerous fibers were hidden in the rusty catwalks, entombed in crooks and crannies, resting atop beams and rafters. Union members had been diagnosed with mesothelioma. Two men had already died. I dreamt of my father’s lungs clogged with what looked like putrid cotton candy.
The factory was also hopping that summer because of an international order for our staple ceiling tile, MT-454, also known by the musical name “acoustic tile.” The U.S. Embassy in Russia had ordered mauve ceiling tiles for a remodel, and we had to experiment to get the color to match exactly. The tiles were dyed with latex paint, juice from berries, and a syrupy concoction that smelled like stale bread. We mixed pigment, manufactured tiles, and matched them to the swatches of chair fabric the embassy had sent. Over and over we tried, using various mixtures, until the end product was so exact you couldn’t pick out the swatch from the tile background. When that happened, the factory floor erupted. On our ride home that day my father said, “That’s something else: Lagro, Indiana, making tiles for Moscow.”
Between the special order — nearly thirty thousand tiles had to be produced — and the asbestos removal, the workdays were long and disorienting. The days of the week lost their meaning. The hot parking-lot pavement popped and hissed when we arrived midday for our twelve-hour shifts. I had known my father to sometimes log several twelves in a row, and sixteeners on the weekend, but it was different to see it up close. Men used substances to make it through: Beer behind the factory by the railroad tracks. Weed, too. But the most pervasive and insidious were the various forms of speed. Truckers from Michigan and Missouri did most of the trafficking, and on this issue my father offered no advice. Though I’d only seen him take tentative pulls on longneck Budweisers at Jimmy’s Tavern in town, he didn’t caution me against the use of alcohol and drugs. I was on my own. I partook, and later, once I’d managed to earn an undergrad in psychology and was living two and a half hours away, I would find out my father had, too. In secret.
The summer ended with our finishing a twelve-hour shift together, sleeping in his truck for a few hours, then returning to the factory floor for a final sixteener. His gait was hobbled by the overtime, the old polio limp growing more apparent as the hours wore on — and, of course, as he aged. He did his best to hide it, to compensate, but it was there. I’d seen him grimacing as he climbed onto the forklift, his jaw muscles working when he scaled a ladder to the catwalk.
It was morning, and the day was already a scorcher. The union contract called for “hydration stations”: Gatorade mixed with ice in oversize Igloo coolers, guzzled so quickly a new batch was constantly being mixed. My father and I both held large styrofoam cups of the cold yellow liquid as we walked to the parking lot. We passed the oldest part of the factory, where the most asbestos was believed to be hiding. Viewed under a microscope, a single fiber looked bladed and fibrous. Fliers that were handed out like advertisements for a garage sale listed the different types: amosite, chrysotile, and crocidolite. The union men came up with a nickname for the last one: “Don’t let the crocs bite your lungs, boys!” Caught in a sleepy yet revved-up daze that only trucker speed can produce, my dad and I paused and watched as hazmat workers with massive vacuums suctioned the catwalk above an old production line. They moved like bees, landing on a spot, sucking up the deadly nectar, and moving on. I looked at my father’s face, noticed the gray in his sideburns, the lines etched at his temples. He was a fastidious man, often shaving during breaks, using mouthwash and deodorant in the locker room. I wondered if he was thinking about the amount of time he had spent in the factory, how much asbestos he might have breathed in. He turned to me and said, “See if you can find a job somewhere else next summer.”
Later that day he drove me to the Greyhound station in Marion, Indiana. My bus ride to Ball State University would be short, only forty miles, but there would be many stops: Gas City, Fairmount, Alexandria. In my backpack was an envelope with the cash to pay my tuition, and I toted an old suitcase my grandmother had found in her attic: baby blue and tattered. The latch was broken, and my father had used a bungee cord to bind it shut. I looked as though I was carrying a bloated, cinched bed pillow. I had money, but my father insisted on buying my ticket, then waited with me. Due back at the factory at 4 PM, he occasionally checked the silver Timex on his thick wrist, where hoary hairs rose like filaments, and I wondered again what the asbestos and all his cigarettes were doing to his lungs. Impatient, he stood, stretched, and walked toward the vending machines. At the factory we had drunk gallons of coffee from such machines: acrid and lukewarm, tainted with bitter grounds. He returned and held out a black coffee for me, one in his other hand for himself. He remained standing, surveying the bus depot. I wanted to tell him how terrified I was that he would get sick, but I didn’t know how to break our self-prescribed silences. So I swallowed my feelings. The woman behind the glass partition announced my bus would be leaving in ten minutes, and Dad gave me a quick smile and began fishing out his truck keys. I stood, and we shook hands like insurance agents. Then he said, “Watch your step getting on and off with your things, or you’ll fall and booger up your knees.” He turned and walked to his truck.
The next time I would see him would be at a café on New Year’s Day and, less than a year after that, at a detox program in the county hospital.
I wasn’t the only one who loved my father’s body. He had many affairs with women he met at union meetings, around the grain elevator at harvest time, and in the little cafés that peppered the state roads of northern Indiana. Maybe they were drawn to his strong limbs or his crooked smile. Perhaps they admired his kindness or were intrigued by how little he talked. Or did he tell them about his childhood bout of polio, and they fell for the wounded little boy he’d once been? I don’t know all the stories, but I know my father’s trysts hurt my mother. Though he was discreet, she answered phone calls where the line would abruptly go dead. Still, the rumors were mostly contained to the factory, where I returned to work between semesters and on breaks. Tuition had gone up, and I was close to being locked out of enrolling, so I also volunteered to work holidays.
One New Year’s Eve I took the late-night security shift. I hadn’t even called to let my parents know I was back in town. By that point I’d bought a cheap hatchback to travel back and forth. After watching a rerun of an Indiana University basketball game in the break room, Gary the night watchman and I headed out to do an hourly patrol of the eerily quiet factory, making sure outside doors and offices were locked. Security was somewhat of a facade, since lots of union members had keys to the factory, but we made our rounds anyway. We carried walkie-talkies, and Gary liked to try and scare me by breathing heavily into his and doing creepy voices. He had just been making what he called “wolverine huffs” when I spotted two figures cloaked in shadow near an open dock door. It was snowing, and flakes drifted in, floating like moths in the glow of a security light. I slipped behind a metal door and fumbled to shut off my hefty Maglite, feeling sure they hadn’t seen me.
It was my father — I recognized his voice, the way he drew out his words, his cadence — and a woman with long dark hair. She giggled, and a hot rush of anger shot through me. As the winds outside moaned, I thought of my mother, home from her shift at the grocery-store deli, oblivious to his indiscretion. I thought I might vomit. I breathed deeply, practicing what I had learned in an elective yoga course at college. It wasn’t working. I could feel my pulse quicken at my throat. It occurred to me that I could rain down justice on him, or scare them the way Gary did to me. I took another look and saw my father had his arms wrapped around the woman. They were so close their shadows looked like one.
I pressed the button on the walkie-talkie and whispered into it, trying to sound nonchalant. “Gary? Can you check on the hallway between the line and the warehouse, the one by the back docks?”
Gary asked why I couldn’t do it; it was my patrol, after all.
“Sick. Need to use the restroom.”
Gary sighed. More snow blew through the open dock door. The woman squealed that she was cold. I thought I heard my father say something about how they could remedy that. Then I clearly heard her coo, “You’re so warm.”
Gary appeared, and I watched my father and the woman jerk to attention and disentangle. “Gary,” Dad bellowed, “how are you?” His voice sounded fake, as if he might be about to sell some Amway. Gary pulled my dad to the side as the dark-haired woman retreated from them, her exhales visible in the cold air. He and my father mumbled words I couldn’t make out, and when my father quickly turned his head and peered around, I guessed that Gary had informed him I was working security that night. My father took the woman by the arm and disappeared into the darkness. His truck was probably parked behind the factory somewhere, and I figured he would whisk her off to another locale.
I waited until Gary was gone and counted to ninety twice before I left my hiding spot and began walking in the other direction, along an old dock. The rusty chains and pulleys of an overhead door hung like rotten meat in an abandoned walk-in freezer. My walkie-talkie buzzed, and Gary cleared his throat. “Hey, buddy, nothing in that hallway. Just some raccoons, I guess.” The wind outside made the metal overhang shudder, and a lone train blew past. “Meet me in the break room at ten till,” Gary said. “But just so you know: I ain’t kissing you at midnight!”
I forced a laugh.
Early the next morning, New Year’s Day, my father asked if I’d like to eat a big breakfast at the Hoosier Point diner. I met him there in the parking lot. It was the first time he’d seen my rusty Ford Pinto with 166,000 miles on it. “Are the brake pads OK?” he asked. “These used-car salesmen don’t have any scruples.” I told him my roommate’s father had sold it to me.
It was way too hot inside the café, and the coffee tasted burnt. The snowstorm had left behind nine inches. My father forked a sausage into his mouth. I tried not to look at the dark bags under his eyes or how thin he had gotten. He had always eaten terribly and had smoked since he was eleven. “You and Mom ring in the New Year together?” I asked. I thought I saw him flinch. I had stayed at a friend’s house and planned to crash on my brother’s couch next.
“Your mother was in bed by ten, and I watched the sports channel.” He didn’t look at me as he reached for his steaming cup of black coffee.
“You’re a liar,” I said.
He looked up, eyes wet and wide. He put the coffee down slowly and plucked the check from the tabletop, black ink scrawled over it like stitches, and he left a good tip, as he always did. I remained seated as he stood.
“Make sure you get the brake lines checked before you go back to school,” my father said.
I couldn’t watch him walk away. On television Ronald Reagan was warning the Soviet people about the dangers of falsehoods. Diners ate and coughed, silverware clinked, and the steam from the grill drifted into the dining area as if the storm had somehow gotten inside.
Less than a year later I received a phone call from a pastor I’d known since childhood. I loved him and trusted his counsel. I was frying Spam in my apartment in Speedway, Indiana, when he called, trying to survive on an hourly wage in social services, which amounted to less than thirteen thousand dollars a year.
“Your father has been ordered by the union and management to attend a thirty-day inpatient detox program,” the pastor told me.
“He won’t go,” I said.
“He’s already there, son. He’s been there for three days. Your mother asked that I call you. The first family-therapy session is Saturday, and she wants you to be there.”
It was autumn. Outside, large leaves tumbled over the dun grass of the apartment complex’s playground: a sandbox with no sand, a single netless basketball goal, a lone swing set, its aqua paint flecking off in rusty scabs. No longer hungry, I moved the pan to a cold burner and sat down on the floor — not a single piece of furniture in the place. I couldn’t speak.
The pastor said my father had been caught with a pint of whiskey and a six-pack in the factory warehouse. He paused. I could hear him breathe. “There was a woman involved.”
I told him I’d be there on Saturday. Then I hung up, pulled on a thin jacket, and went outside. It was getting dark, the lights from the other apartment windows glowing in the twilight. The wind was cold. Nowhere to go, I walked four loops around the buildings, then went back to my apartment, wrapped the greasy Spam in foil, and tucked it into the almost-empty fridge.
To my shock, my father had agreed to have his intake questionnaire sent to family members. I sat in my car an hour before the therapy session and read through his answers to clinical questions: What is your daily intake of substances? Are there triggers that make you use these substances? Have you been forthright with your physician, family, boss, and faith-based leaders? Some of his responses made me smile: I drink because I like it. Of course I’ve not been forthright! Others came as a shock: My legs hurt from polio and liquor helps. I thought I’d be more than a factory worker. I love my family and want to be better.
Inside the county hospital visitors crowded a narrow hallway, waiting to be checked in. All my family would be in attendance: my brothers and sisters, my mother. In a small town like ours, in a county with more livestock than people, everyone would know my father was in treatment. I didn’t care.
We were seated in the requisite circle, on folding chairs worn to a polish by those who had sat there before us, listening to terrible and embarrassing confessions. The treatment followed a standard 12-step program. At first I believed it would be an excruciating but unproductive afternoon. My father used words so sparingly that I couldn’t see him doing much more than tolerating the process. Then I looked up and saw him shuffling into the room, limp no longer concealed, wearing baggy string-tied pajamas, slippers, and a plain white T-shirt. He looked more tired than I had ever seen him. He’d lost even more weight, and though it was probably good for his health, his face appeared sunken, his eyes pronounced and so recessed in their sockets that he seemed made-up for the theater stage.
I won’t say what transpired within the cinder-block walls of that hospital basement smelling of mothballs and heating fuel. I could tell you that the proceedings were protected by the anonymity of therapy, but the truth is, like most addiction stories, there wasn’t much novel about my father’s. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard to hear or that it didn’t help.
My father was forced to graduate early from the program when his insurance ran out. He was done with alcohol, he said. We went out to eat as a family at Bob Evans to celebrate. It was snowing. After the meal blackbirds hopped around the parking lot as we shivered and hugged and said goodbye.
I didn’t see my dad again for almost a decade, until 2001, the year he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. By then I’d gotten married, had a daughter, divorced, moved to Georgia, and dealt with my own shortcomings. I had also recently won a writing fellowship that would pave the way for me to publish a memoir about working with him in the factory. He did not like that I had chosen to write about his work.
My father did not love his body — or, at least, he did not treat it as if he did. His prostate cancer was made worse by his nearly sixty years of smoking, and the physician said asbestos exposure can complicate any condition. By the time of his diagnosis, Dad had likely spent four decades breathing in the microscopic fibers that at work would lodge themselves under our skin, creating white cysts on our forearms, the backs of our necks, the tops of our feet. The steel-toed boots could keep a forklift tire from crushing our metatarsals, but they were no defense against asbestos. The factory had closed, and it had been more than ten years since I had pulled a shift there, but we carried the work around in our bodies, in our minds. The word asbestos, in Greek, means “inextinguishable.”
My father started his cancer treatment around Halloween. That year I made the ill-advised decision to take my daughter, just six years old, to a haunted house in a converted cotton mill on Atlanta’s north side. When we approached the building, actors portraying werewolves, vampires, ghouls, and zombies were scaring those waiting in line. Having more sense than her young father, my child simply said, “I’m scared and don’t want to be here.”
Once back in the car, safe behind locked doors and snacking on the candy we’d bought for trick-or-treaters, she did not want to leave. “It’s fun to watch from here,” she told me, and we talked about what scared us. My daughter was most scared of a certain part of the playground at school. What terrified me most was the thought that my father’s cancer would spread uncontrollably, the years of cigarettes and factory work creating an awful multiplying effect. I told my daughter I was scared of horror movies.
More than a year later, despite my fears, my father was declared officially cancer-free. Not a man to retire, financially or physically, he took a part-time job at the county transportation department, where he answered phones, joked with the young snowplow drivers, and occasionally cleaned up the office and garage. My siblings and I bought our parents a computer so we could keep in touch by email, but the 2003 Dell overheated when my father tried to dry his socks on it. So we encouraged him and my mother to buy cell phones, and, to my surprise, he actually used the Motorola to call me. Thus began our decade-long habit of chatting while he was at work.
I knew from my research that his body was not the same after the cancer treatment. He would probably have to pee a lot and could suffer difficult bouts of constipation. It would likely impact his sex life. Of course, we did not talk about any of this. Instead we discussed topics like college basketball, our jobs, memories of the factory, and what we had sent into the world in the form of acoustic ceiling tile.
I had started traveling for work, consulting on issues related to employment and disability in places like New Mexico, Utah, Virginia, California, South Dakota, Montana, and Rhode Island. I remember my cell phone ringing at a hotel in Washington, D.C. I had entered my father into the contacts as Mr. Crandell. Although my two brothers and I were also Mr. Crandell, our father was the only person who had the right to that moniker. He and I talked about the sleet and ice in Indiana, conditions that in the past would have meant more toil on the farm or getting stuck at the factory. Exhausted after a long day of talking with bureaucrats about Medicaid, I eased onto the bed. It was an older hotel, with itchy comforters and hand towels like gauze. “I think this room has our ceiling tile,” I said. My dad asked where I was exactly. I told him, and he said, “That was probably the big order in ’89. That hotel chain bought almost a million tiles. Calhoun and Rice were foremen then.” He asked if I was certain they were our tiles. I wasn’t. “Can you get up there?” he said. I put the phone down, stood on the bed, and strained to reach the ceiling but couldn’t. Then I climbed on the desk and was able to push one tile to the side and extract it. I turned it over to find the factory seal, date, and batch number.
“It’s ours, and you’re right: September 1989.”
He chuckled. I had been working at the factory that summer. “Those might have your glue in them,” he said. We chatted for a bit; then he said, “You should call your mother. She got a new heart diagnosis.” I thought I heard his voice break, and I imagined the phone in his scarred and pocked hands, fingers with nails like clear resin, always clipped and clean. I told him I had already talked with her, and I tried to offer some optimism. She would need a hospital stay for arrhythmia, but she had always had a weak heart, possibly from a tapeworm she’d had as a child. I had heard stories of the awful drink she’d had to ingest, a concoction that smelled like pine tar and left her nauseated. I asked Dad about Mom’s prognosis, but he changed the subject: “Where do you go next?”
“I think we did tile for a hospital there.”
By this time my memoir about the factory was due to be published, and I had sent my parents the pages by post. My mother would sometimes send them back with large red Xs on portions she didn’t like. We struggled by phone until she started to understand what I was trying to do. “I know it’s harsh in places,” I told her, “but it’s a love song, really.”
She said my father had never liked love songs.
I didn’t hear from him, even after I sent the parts of the memoir that included his cheating and his time in the detox program. Then, on my first visit home after the book came out, he told me to get into the truck. He wanted to show me something.
We trundled over potholes and took turns he would refer to using map directions that I could never follow. For him and his internal compass, north, south, east, and west were clear and simple. I remained quiet, looking out on a dreary November afternoon, the grayness like a cell wall. The smell of my father — mint gum, aftershave, a hint of dryer sheet from his flannel shirt — tweaked my heart. I wanted to tell him how much I loved him, like I did with my mother, but this was as impossible as my knowing north-northwest. I watched his meaty hands on the steering wheel, his bifocals as clean as a newly mopped break-room floor. He had put some weight back on and was trying to improve his health by riding a bicycle (I’d been told not to mention this), drinking tea instead of coffee, curbing the Salem Lights, and declining margarine on his mashed potatoes.
I asked where we were going.
“To the cemetery. Your mother and I bought plots, picked out headstones.”
When we got there, he didn’t drive straight to their plots but parked the truck, cracked the window, and lit a cigarette. Some raindrops found their way in and clung to his hairy forearms, the skin there the color of walnut. He stared out the windshield at the soggy graves ensconced in low-lying fog. “I wish you hadn’t written that book.” I felt an electric charge go through me. “Can’t do anything about it now,” he added, “but if I were younger, and you were not my son, I’d drop you like a bag of cement.” That was it. He put the truck into reverse, and we rode back to their house in town.
I left the next morning for a small book tour: Fort Wayne, Chicago, and St. Louis. It was early, and the rain had passed. My parents were asleep in their room as I had coffee at their kitchen table. I left them some money and a note saying that I hoped they would have a couple of dinners out on me. When I returned to Georgia a week later, I found a letter in my mailbox with my father’s southpaw scrawl on the front. Inside was the money and nothing else.
I called my dad from a hotel in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where snow was coming down like in the blizzards we had endured in 1977 and ’78. As we talked, I watched people outside walk over river ice two feet thick. “The place I’m doing the training at has our tiles in the foyer and the hallways,” I told him. “And it’s in the ballroom. Heather gray.” He seemed to stumble over the details. First he thought I was in Wichita Falls; then he called me by my two brothers’ names. I asked if everything was OK.
“No, your mother has to go to the hospital.”
The exploratory surgery hadn’t gone well, and her blood pressure was falling dangerously low. Before long this would cause a major “internal-bleeding event.”
Doris May Ellis died October 20, 2011, aged seventy-one. In addition to being a mother of seven children, five of whom lived, she worked in a Cyclone Seeder factory, at Arby’s, and behind the deli counter at Kroger. She was a 4-H leader, grandmother, and wife of fifty-three years. She could sew anything, write poetry, and made the best divinity candy I’ve ever tasted.
At the funeral my father appeared shrunken, as if half of him had also been put into the casket. He and my siblings and I got there early to spend time together as a family before others arrived to pay their respects, and something about how our mother looked didn’t sit right with my father. He told the funeral director, who asked us to please step into the grieving room while they made some adjustments. Satisfied, my father took on the role of host, welcoming Mom’s relatives and old coworkers. He amazed me with his stamina, somehow managing to display more interpersonal skills than I had ever seen him use.
At his house afterward, once the food had been cleared away and the last of the guests had left, he asked if I would help him remove his shoes. I was happy for the chance to demonstrate my love for him. He sat down in his recliner, and I unlaced and removed his dress shoes, placing them to the side of the chair. I pulled off one long, thin sock, then the other. His calves were swollen, and there were red indentations where the socks had dug in. Without asking, I began lightly massaging his feet. In the dim light from a floor lamp, I could see his eyes were shut, and he wore a pained expression on his wrinkled face. He had scars on his arms and legs, patches of white where the skin had healed from wounds whose origins I would never know.
He suffered from sleep apnea and preferred to spend the night in his recliner. So when I was done, I covered him up, turned off the lamp, and crawled into a single bed in the guest room. Drifting off, I imagined I heard my mother’s voice in the summer, calling for us to come in from the pasture for dinner. I wondered what my father would dream about on his first night in fifty-three years without the woman he had known and loved since they were twelve. My heart hurt. Death, the most common of all life’s gut punches. My mother was in the ground, and my father was asleep in the recliner. She was at rest, but he had more work to do.
Our chats while I was on the road became more frequent. In Florida I spotted our tiles in a bar; in Utah they were above me in the rental-car line; when I had a layover in North Carolina, the tiles showed up in the airport lounge. I would snap photos and print them out to mail to my father, since he preferred to receive them that way rather than digitally. He’d get the envelopes and call me in a good mood. His ability to remember details of tile orders from decades prior was impressive. We went on like this for eighteen months. We had even started to chat some about my mother. I asked if he’d been visited by her — a question that normally he would have just ignored. “Yes, twice,” he said. Was it strange to be without her? He scoffed and said, “What do you think, Einstein?” He told me the most difficult time of day was breakfast, sitting there alone over coffee and toast, listening to the weather. He sometimes forgot and would call for her as if she were in another room.
In the summer of 2012 a massive derecho ripped through the Midwest, and a hundred-year-old oak was plucked from the earth and dropped onto my father’s house. The Associated Press sent a photographer, who took a picture of my brother standing at the base of the gigantic root ball. My father decided it was time to leave the house where he and my mother had lived for twenty years and move into a small apartment. When I pried, he simply said, “It doesn’t feel like home anymore.”
Once he was settled in a small one-bedroom, our calls resumed. He was still working part-time at the transportation department. I had been traveling even more, and he had begun allowing me to text him photos of MT-454 foil-backs I spotted in Lolo Pass, Idaho; Saint Paul, Minnesota; Indianapolis, Indiana; Palm Springs, California; Rocky Mount, Virginia; and elsewhere. Almost every time I sent pics, he could recall the manufacturing details. As his health deteriorated — mostly heart related — he seemed to want more and more proof that his handiwork had made it out into the world. “I sure wish I could have seen those tiles at the embassy in Moscow,” he told me.
Ten days after his birthday in 2014, my father passed away in the same recliner where he’d sat while I had rubbed his feet. It was quick, a massive heart attack a week after he’d had a pacemaker put in. My brother dropped by in the morning, as he often did, with coffee and a biscuit and found our dad looking peaceful, maybe even comfortable, in his favorite chair. I was in Brunswick, Georgia, when I got the call, which meant I had a five-hour drive to the Atlanta airport. Plenty of time to think.
My father had relied on his body to get him through polio, asbestos, prostate cancer, and innumerable injuries. His body had toiled in factories and on farms. Its needs had caused heartache for him, and others, too. The drive inland from coastal south Georgia is tedious, and I put on cruise control and let myself start to grieve, crying at exit ramps and taking breathers at rest stops. I remembered him in different stages of life: a black-and-white photo of him in a bow tie and suit at his high-school graduation, Angus cattle grazing behind him; memories of him in the mid-1970s, with muscled forearms and muttonchops, loading hogs for sale onto a truck; the various mental snapshots of him at the factory, expertly backing an eighteen-wheeler through a dock opening with no more than two inches of leeway on either side; and then in decline, his physique diminished but eyes still fiery.
To all this I had to add the sight of his body in a casket, hands folded over his chest, a pose I had never seen him in. I wanted to turn his left hand over and stroke the scar on his palm, but I reminded myself it was only his body, only a vessel. All of us will leave ours behind. My father’s was used up, battered, contracted, sharecropped, unionized, forsaken. Stunned, I looked down on the body of a man I had loved deeply but been forbidden to really, truly touch. I bent and put my cheek to his and told him how much I loved him. I kissed him on the forehead and wept.
My one regret: I wish I could have done more for him.