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When I was four years old I knew my phone number. Still remember it to this day. But I don’t remember much of my dad. I don’t remember him saying goodbye, but I wish I could. At least then I’d know for sure he did.
I remember fear, falling into a pond, struggling, giving up, drifting, floating away, saved by a stranger. My dad had already gone and he wasn’t there to pull me out.
I remember vengeance, frothing as he smashed a stack of my favourite records. He towered over me, tall and lean and angry. I remember his side-zipped leather boots, shards of grooved black vinyl tumbling against them, collecting in a pile, kicked away as he left me there, crying. As if I’d learn right from this second wrong.
I remember obedience, taking his empty beer cans to the trash bin, always bringing back a cold one. I remember wanting the last sip, to taste what my father tasted, to know what he loved. I remember swigging and getting a mouthful of cigarette ash. I remember retching and regretting and finally learning my lesson.
I remember sleep, together on the couch with the late night movie on channel three. James Bond something. I still don’t care for spy films, because for most my life I didn’t care to remember.
I remember frustration at the kitchen table. Walnut Formica, carrot orange vinyl chairs, imitation crystal juice glasses, and my mustard-trimmed choo choo train plate. I wouldn’t eat the Chinese food. He’ll show me. Open your fucking mouth. I remember forkfuls. I said open. My mom watched in tears, in horror. Her little boy. This was 1978. The year he left.
I remember Grampie, standing in his kitchen when my dad came to pick us up. We lived there for a while after the split. This was Grove Road, where he’d raised his little girl, my mom. Now, a cheating drunk no good son of a bitch had the nerve to darken the door to exercise his rights, one day a week, while his mistress went out shopping. Keep your goddamned hands clean and keep sober around them and so help me if they get a scratch. The good memories in that kitchen, the days of playing piano in the other room and singing Glenn Miller and shooting pool in the basement and dealing setback under the cuckoo clock in the dining room. They were gone then, and even further gone now.
I try to remember the good times, but I don’t know if there were any. Maybe the time my dad took me along to look at pickup trucks at the Chevrolet dealership. I liked the red one with the four wheel drive hubs. He got the blue one and put a camper shell on it and a mattress in the back. Drove us all to Virginia to visit his sister. Six hours. Had walkie talkies between the cab and the shell and I think everyone got along well enough. Except my brother smashed my toy phone when I pretended it rang and I answered it and said our doctor was on the line. I guess he had trouble with authority. And with his little brother. Kids those days, these days. We’re all the same.
These days when I put pen to paper, it’s to remember. But it’s all reconstruction and caricature, because I spent so many years regretting and hating. Now I think I’m ready to recapture all that’s lost. I want redemption. For my father. For myself. But it won’t be easy. This is no sugar coated story. The past can’t be compelled to cooperate against its will.
I wonder how it felt to pack up his stuff, his clothes, his record collection, and his CB radio and to think, I’m doing the right thing. To tell my mom he would leave, knowing she’d tell her dad, and knowing he’d be forever the villain, irredeemable, yet saying to himself, I’m doing the right thing. To tell his mistress he’d do it on Friday and they could start clean together on the weekend in a new town, and they were doing the right thing. To tell us, the kids, as he must have told us whether I remember or not, everything will be alright. This is the right thing. Tell us to remember the good times and the Christmas trees and the birthday cakes and the leftover pizza for breakfast, because this is the right thing. To pack the boxes in the blue Chevrolet and hang his clothes under the camper shell. How does one pick just the right outfit for doing the right thing? What did he wear that night? Is it his lucky shirt now?
He’d grab a beer from the fridge, for the road. He’d walk across the brown shag rug in the living room where we had our first camp out, by the fireplace, in the sleeping bags we got that Christmas. This is the right thing, he’d say. He’d walk down the stairs to the front door, which he’d open quietly so not to wake the kids, a final act of kindness, executed with immense love and care because to let those beautiful children sleep is the right thing. He’d whisper goodbye to nobody, amidst the muffled crying in the upstairs bedroom and the two sleeping kids across the hall. No matter whether they heard it, because that’s the right thing. That’s goodbye, knowing it might be forever.
I imagine when he got in the truck he felt naked. Exposed. Fresh. Everything on the surface. He turned the key and the truck chugged to a start in the quiet night and he flicked on the headlights and they lit up the tag on my mom’s Plymouth Satellite, AF2970, the white numbers shining against the patriot blue plate. It all went as planned. She had pulled in first so they wouldn’t have to shift cars around the driveway right at the bitter end. He pulled out and drove down the street past the creepy house that scared me my first three Halloweens, past the church nursery school I attended where I fell silent with the teachers and other kids after this night. He would have turned left on Queen Street past Tony’s package store, where we had walked to get lollipops and beer in the Blizzard of ’78, closed at this hour of the night no doubt. And he would have gotten on Interstate 84 and taken off to – – –.
Where? Could he simply fall into her arms that very night? Would he book a motel for a couple days and let it all sink in? Would he stop at that bar in Hartford – the one he took us those many times with the table-top arcade games and greasy french fries, where we would play Tapper while he drank cheap beer and ordered us cheeseburgers? And would he think of us kids at all? Would he pull a stool belly up and chat to the bartender until he ran out of cigarettes and patience? And how would it feel when he did? They might as well have lay spike strips all the way down Queen Street, because there was no turning back now.
What difference would the truth about any of this have made to me? The fact was, he was gone. And I wish I could remember crying for him.
After my dad left there was a court case. I don’t remember how long it went on or whether anyone ever asked me anything about what had changed or said anything about what was yet to come. I know they sold the house and I know we moved in with Grampie, three of us in the extra room upstairs with the old radios and Uncle Bill’s wing back chair and floor lamp and the creepy passageway that led to the attic. Don’t ever touch that door, they told me and I didn’t. I don’t remember whether we had beds or just mattresses or what. I don’t remember toys, but along the shelves next to the stairs were empty cardboard tubes of Wondra Gold Medal flour from years before. We could use them as building blocks and make towers up to the ceiling. There was an old plastic canister of Janitor in a Drum full of sand that’d prop the back door open in summer. The kitchen table was yellow Formica, perfect to slide playing cards across on snowy days, Grampie sitting by the window, waiting. He never said what for. He just waited.
By then the case was settled and we’d go on Saturday visits, just after morning cartoons. We had to be back in time for five o’clock mass, stinking of cigarettes and second hand booze. I’ve got good memories of watching movies and playing games and eating microwave popcorn and cheese hot dogs and Skittles and Starburst we’d pick up at the gas station in Newington, just off that industrial road near his apartment. There’s still something about artificial grape that takes me back. Most visits took this form. Babysitting with candy. I don’t know what my mom did those days, but I know if I were her now, I’d worry like hell about the kids, the one thing she had going for her, out on loan.
Sometimes we’d take a road trip before lunch. We weren’t but thirty miles from the state line and the Massachusetts liquor stores were a good bargain. We’d pile into my dad’s Honda Prelude, me alone in the back without a lick of legroom. He’d crank up the Johnny Cash and we’d sing along and when the tape ended he’d flip it over and play it again. In my mind, I’ve always known all the words, and I bet my bottom dollar I could recite them all right now, in tune and in time, not a pause to reconsider a phrase. I guess you could say I know his music by instinct, and that’s as good a memory as I can imagine.
Somedays we’d have an adventure, duckpin bowling at the T-Bowl, balls small enough for a couple of kids to handle, even if they were mostly gutters. My dad would give us each a dollar in quarters to try the video games. I thought Pac Man was a banana and I thought the point was to bump into the ghosts and you couldn’t tell me otherwise. My dollar went pretty quickly, and I never did get the hang of those machines.
Around Christmas time the insurance company my dad worked for would have a giant party for all the families at the headquarters in Hartford. Every kid got a wrapped present. Big building. Parking structure. Elevators. I remember if you took the elevator down from the ground level, you’d end up in a bowling alley under the building. Daddy you have a bowling alley where you work? This had to be the best job in the world. But it didn’t last much longer and he became a carpenter and money got even tighter.
Saturdays were well and good, but during the week was odd. It was enough that I was a skinny, pale, quiet kid. Gap between my front teeth. Terrible at sports. Uncoordinated. The kind of innocence that, if it weren’t endearing, would have gotten the shit beat out of it. I could accept all that. These were just things — things I didn’t figure I could change, so no bother. The thing that really hurt was that I was the only kid I knew with a visiting father. The little boy whose daddy didn’t play superhero in schoolyard boasts and didn’t drive him to little league. I didn’t even know how to play baseball until around about the tenth grade.
These were bitter, hard times, and it was made perfectly clear to us, despite what might be the truth or who might not agree, that even my father’s own mother wasn’t proud of that man. That’s why she sent us a dollar in a birthday card even when he didn’t, goddamn him straight to Hell.
My dad took us to see American history. I remember destinations: Plymouth Rock, Bunker Hill, The Lincoln Memorial, Washington Monument, Air and Space Museum, Boston Science Museum, Sturbridge Village, Mystic Seaport, the submarines in Groton, Old Ironsides. I don’t remember all the facts that made the places stand out of history’s pages, but I remember the trips themselves well.
On the trip to Plymouth Rock, we stayed in a cheap motel outside of town. My dad hadn’t brought any toys to keep us kids occupied, so we stopped at a dime store and I got a suction cup tipped bow and arrow. I remember trying to knock a soda can off the night stand, but I couldn’t hit a thing. I was maybe eight years old. My dad though, his aim was amazing. He couldn’t miss. Reminded me of a time at his parents’ cottage somewhere by a lake in the woods of western Massachusetts. He brought his pump action Red Ryder BB rifle and he shot his empty beer cans off the ledge of the upper deck. One handed, mind you, balancing the barrel on those side-zipped boots. Coolest thing I’d ever seen. He only missed once and you could hear the BB tink against the aluminum siding of the cottage across the creek. Then you could hear some goddamned cursing and you know what, kids, guns aren’t toys. We stood the Red Ryder back in the corner behind the glass slider and gathered up the perforated Busch cans from down on the lawn under the deck.
Next day we looked at the rock. 1620 with a rectangle chiseled around it. Then we drove to Boston. Took two rotations of the Johnny Cash cassette tape to get there and find parking.
At the Boston Science Museum we wanted to see the lightning show, in which a brave and smart man — scientists are smart and brave you know — would stand in a cage with lightning bouncing off it. Despite my bristling anticipation, when that first bolt hit, the clash was louder than I could scream and my dad gathered me up and ushered me out and it was going to be OK because it’s just a noise and we’re all alright. OK? He demonstrated how alright we were with ice cream sandwiches, and let me tell you, I learned a thing or two about the nature of proof that day.
I learned things by mistake along the way as well. Did you know you can get the other drivers to honk their horns by displaying just one finger?
Another time we stopped at Old Newgate Prison out by the airport in Connecticut as I recall. It was a copper mine that hadn’t paid out, so they barred up the tunnels and put miscreants in there. I loved those tunnels, scary as they were. I wondered what it would have been like, as a kid my size, to dig something as vast and complicated as this place — a place to hide even if you hadn’t done a thing wrong. I went home and started digging under the old cherry tree in our back yard, until it died and I had to chop it down. Then I started digging under the apple tree instead.
Anyway, after the tour of the tunnels we hopped into the car and buckled up and the goddamned son of a bitch wouldn’t start again goddamnit. My dad knew what to do. He got out and popped the trunk and we could hear him digging around and rattling back there. He slammed the trunk and he came back with a tire iron and reached through the open driver’s window and pulled the hood release under the dash and walked to the front and winked at us through the windshield. He unlatched the hood and lifted it and propped it with the support rod and leaned in deep and rap-rap-tapped on the starter motor to knock the gears back in whack. He saw us out of our seats inside and shouted to turn the key in the ignition and we did and it cranked over and he lay the prop rod flat and slammed the hood and checked it was latched and he got back in. We scrambled into our seat belts and took off down the highway and he didn’t shut the motor off when he pumped a couple dollars of gas a few exits down. I used the same starter motor trick to good effect a few times over the years. Turns out poor people devise some clever means to get through when times are tight. I didn’t realise then, but those few dollars for gas were the last he had in his pocket. Forsaking his bar money to buy back some time. I guess that’s the nature of sacrifice.
As I got older I started asking questions to which I had already been given answers. Why did my dad leave? He was a drunk. A womaniser. Only cared about himself. And gradually the small town stigma of being from a “broken home” stuck, which made me more and more angry, which bound me more and more to the stigma. Kids from broken homes are angry, you know. Don’t say that! Why are you so angry? Stop it! There was no escape but silence.
In silence I listened, and when I listened I heard prophesies. I heard that little boys become their fathers, and I heard that my father was not a good man. He’s addicted to drink, everyone said. A reputation for hard living, and if you’re not careful, you’ll end up the same. It’s in the family now, so watch yourself. Don’t so much as start down that man’s path.
The trouble was I had learned for sure what I didn’t want to be — I’d been told over and over anyway, and took all that telling as truth — but I had no idea what positive actions might be worth a whit to take. When what you are is what you aren’t, you drift until you find something to hang on to. I had to stop drifting.
I set a goal. Get out. I’d do whatever it took to get away, mentally and geographically, from all I wasn’t supposed to become. From all this temptation. From fate. My plan was to learn my way out. Get educated. Pay for one year of school and perform as well as I could and find a source of full funding. Then, get into graduate school far far away. That would break the cycle. No more anger, obsession, and poor behaviour. Ultimately, I had internalised the droning indictments that my absent father was the one who made me so poor of pocket, and he had made it so I had to work so hard for so little, and it was his fault that I couldn’t even hit a baseball for chrissake. I believed the prophesy that boys become their fathers, but I would thwart that fate.
Through the years, without him present to defend himself, I put my dad on trial. Any time I felt robbed of opportunity, I’d round up the usual suspect and drag him through my personal court. I was the prosecution, armed with my own version of the facts and my own leading questions, and guilt was the only possible verdict. The more I prosecuted, the guiltier and guiltier he got, and the angrier and angrier I got.
It cycled like this for years, until one day I burst. It was a Friday in 1994. My mom and stepfather and I went out for pizza, as we did every Friday when we all lived together. We sat down. We ordered. We chatted. I sipped a root beer.
Then my dad walked in.
Considering the symptoms of my reaction, I suppose this was a panic attack. Really it was an eruption. A natural force. Every pore of my body opened at once, bathing me in sweat. Every gland in my body secreted at once, saliva, tears, and testosterone-fueled rage, pouring out across the table, onto the floor, flooding the parlour. I wrung out more and more, fists clenching and writhing. It was hate. It was fear. It was all the mocking, and the dreams of a good father, every slight and every sideways glance, neatly catalogued in my head, now upturned in a heap, unleashed in an instant. It was the death of a demon I had created and disgraced for years and years. When I opened my eyes, I saw he was not the demon I wanted him to be. He was only a man, waiting for a pizza.
I left out the back and he didn’t see me and he wouldn’t for years to come.
My brother got married around about twenty years ago. Story is he told his fiancée that our father lived in Virginia and nobody ever saw him. I reckon he thought it easier to manage deceit than face up to his memories.
His fiancée checked the phone book to clear up any confusion and worked out the truth of things right quick. My dad lived close by. She arranged a family reunion of sorts at his place. I was invited. I hadn’t spoken to my dad for at least a decade, except for a nasty letter berating him for sending a child support check that bounced. Cost me twenty dollars in bank fees and twenty two cents in postage, neither of which I had to spare. Fuck it, I thought. Might as well go, and maybe even get my stamp money back.
I remember showing up late, parking against the curb behind the electrical box and next to the storm drain. I shut off the car, whose head gasket was already starting to leak, and it sputtered a little and gasped a little and blew out a sharp white smoke. I got out and looked down and thought about the fact that I was holding my only ignition key and if I were to drop it all the way down that drain, there’d be no retrieving it, and I’d be stuck, no exit but maybe to run through the woods out back to the turnpike beyond, or maybe start banging on neighbour’s doors and please for the love of God let me in and let me curl up in a corner and let everything go away and let me start over clean, out of here, everything and everyone left behind, and I’ll change, I promise forever, if I can just hang on to this key this one time, and we’ll all be alright.
I quit thinking like that and I slipped the key into my front pocket and it jingled around with a few coins. I collected myself and walked past his car – still have the Honda I see – past the ceramic birdbath and the bamboo wind chimes and I looked at the screen door and I thought about all that it keeps out and all that it lets in all at once. I remember this place. I am here again. In the moment. The past doesn’t matter and the future isn’t happening, and I don’t need anybody, because I’ve learned to be alone.
When you hate your past and fear your future, you learn to live wholly in the present. During these years of estrangement from my father, I thought a lot about time and memory. About the nature of things and about our human existence. About how our world came about, where it might end up, and our place in the middle of the two. These were either the highfalutin ideas of a novice philosopher, or the coping mechanisms of kid deathly afraid of himself. Or maybe a little of both.
I couldn’t face my father as a hate-filled kid. And I couldn’t face the possibility that, come what may, I might be this man one day. A man without a past and without a future is no man at all, but if I were to get through this reunion, that’s the man I needed to be. I needed to be nobody.
I paused on the front steps and exhaled deeply, everything released. I raised my right hand and extended my index finger and said to myself “I do not exist.” I pressed the buzzer and my father answered and when he pulled open the screen door I saw his eyes, as blue and as lost as mine, and the past didn’t matter and the future wasn’t happening. Our redemption had started.
He shook my hand and pulled me in and we walked through the place and it smelled of smoke and food. I could hear the others out back, catching up, honestly, finally. I vaguely remember a few details. He uses a gas barbecue and there were new swivel chairs on the new deck, which he had rebuilt recently. Maybe the planter box was freshened up with petunias in the spring. Maybe a stone fruit tree that hadn’t been there before. Maybe a small patch of garden and a tomato. One detail counted above all else: my dad was there. Married to the mistress now. I’ll be damned. He does know how to commit.
I stayed later than everyone else and when it was just us left, we walked through his workshop and pointed to this and pointed to that and it was idle nervous chatter, as if we were on a first date. How about a root beer? Yeah. And we sat on the couch together in front of the coffee table he’d built. Nice finish. Careful and clean. I cracked open the A&W and leaned back and stared at the pictures on the wall. Pictures of trips taken. People met. People lost. Me. A model boat. The Regulator clock, ticking.
Idle chatter turned to honesty, then to apology, and then to regret. In the moment, I didn’t think to ask the tough questions. I listened. He said his piece and I heard it and I accepted it, even if it’s taken another twenty years to understand all we exchanged.
After all those defenseless years, my dad told his story. He told of hard times. Money was tight. He found himself in a dead-end job with two kids, a car payment, and a mortgage. He didn’t understand how he’d gotten there, but he knew he didn’t belong. He never said he didn’t love my mother. That wasn’t a question. The only question for them was whether they could make it work, and the mutual answer was no. Irreconcilable differences. Whether his bad habits caused it or whether they were the self-soothing of a man ill-equipped to face a life without alternatives was irrelevant. Was it right to leave a woman with two little kids? No. Did he have regrets? Yes. Did he miss us? Of course. Did he wish the past had been otherwise? Did he?
We didn’t need talk therapy. We needed to get to know one another, because not all apologies are spoken. We decided to take on a project and take up our Saturday mornings where they left off. Over the following year we built a guitar in his little workshop. We made mistakes. Together. We fixed them. Together. He taught me about machines and blades and geometry. We never got hung up on the past, because we both knew our peace was in the present. We finally had a chance at building something, and together we took it.
For that, we are lucky men.
Last year my wife and our little boy and I took a trip around the United States to catch up with family and let them gurgle over the kid they hadn’t seen since he was that high. Six weeks on the road, remembering these places, from the desert southwest to the plains of Wyoming to the curved and wooded hills of New England, we confirmed that we miss people dearly, but have no regrets about our new life a half a world from there.
We lugged around three checked bags, three carry ons, and three personal items, which left little space for new memories gathered along the way. My dad had two gifts for us, one for me and one for my wife, both flat and easily stored. He’s moved along a time or two and knows exactly what one can carry.
First was a photograph printed on sheet metal. Wombat standing in front of an art deco fountain one night in Napier, New Zealand. She’s back lit by a spray of green and red light, and though you can’t see it beyond, the west end of the Pacific Ocean was making a ruckus against the rocky beach. My dad remembered us saying this was our favourite place on our honeymoon some nine years prior. It was when and where we decided this corner of the world might make a reasonable place to settle down. And now here we are.
Second was a Franklin Mint collector set of Johnny Cash records. My dad knows my affection for Cash, because I inherited that affection directly from him. It’s a lovely set. Deep burgundy vinyl. A history book inside full of facts and stories. Just my thing. I figure he remembered also that I’d gotten a new turntable for my birthday a couple years back – the first higher-end machine I’ve ever had in my life-long love of records. I thought about the patience it takes to pick out perfect gifts. Here’s a man who’s taken time and paid attention.
He wouldn’t have known, given our history, but by the time I was in high school, mowing lawns and washing dishes and earning my first dollars, my mom would take me to the collectors’ record shop up the road and wait patiently in the car while I flipped through the M’s and the S’s, fishing for treasures, casting, dragging, reeling in until I hooked a catch.
Searching is its own thrill, whether records or antiques or archaeology or genealogy. I reckon we all know it in one form or another, and I reckon all my life I searched for the perfect vinyl, in mint condition, no dog-eared jackets, not a scratch or a pop on it. Beautiful sounds. Lost in the beautiful presence of music, the past be damned, the future set free.
It wasn’t until we got back to New Zealand that I realised all of my life of collecting hadn’t been to build up a larger and larger number of discs. It was my attempt to replace something I’d lost, but I had never yet found a substitute.
We got back to the house and I dug through my suitcase and checked the Johnny Cash records and they survived twenty hours in a cargo hold just fine. I figured we’d give a listen as we unpacked and settled back into our groove.
I powered up the amplifier and the speakers hummed to life. I put the disc on the felt-covered platter and I switched on the turntable motor and it spun up to speed and I set the needle into the groove and it clicked and popped and settled in, clean as a newborn, and you could hear the fresh strings on Johnny’s guitar, pluckin, croonin about this burnin thing. I knew every word. Still.
End of the song, in my head I hummed the notes of the next before it even started. Same at the end of this one, and into the third. Same the whole side and the next and the next through the whole set. I remembered every word of every song in this particular order of this particular collection purchased off a television advertisement some three decades prior. Then it occurred to me this was the source for the cassette tape my dad would play in the car on all those beer runs and all those trips to see American history. These very records. And now here they were, on my turntable in a little two bedroom flat three hundred metres from the most beautiful beach I’ve ever seen, nine thousand miles from the memories they conjured. And now a little boy dancing next to me, making memories of his own.
It wasn’t until recently, when I started writing this, I realised what my dad had given me. You see, I write to remember, and though the caricatures I create are as flawed as any memories, I’ve reclaimed much that I’ve pushed away over the years. I’ve got a little boy now and one day he’ll want and need to know all this history. All these memories. I’ve learned that accepting the past is the first step one must take on a path to redemption. To stop wishing the past otherwise is to accept the present and to liberate the future. To wish the past otherwise is to obliterate that wish, for it was the past that brought the wish about. To accept this truth prepares those who might be redeemed.
My dad didn’t simply give me a set of records I liked. This is no sing-along. One of my earliest memories is of my father storming into the downstairs playroom with a stack of records I loved listening to and snapping them to shards while I cried. One of my most recent memories is my dad replacing those records, thirty five years on, and teaching me something I couldn’t have learned had the past been otherwise.
I know myself as a father now, and with that I know myself as a son. And so I know that when he dug those records out of storage, his records that his son loved most, he said aloud words that would drift in the air until I heard them. I hear them now: Maybe this will make things right.
Some say it’s best to forgive and forget. To wipe clean and start again. I believe we all have the capacity to forgive, but I believe it’s a mistake to forget. It’s in memories where we find redemption. We find acceptance without submission, and to find that is to find strength and peace, and that’s all I wanted all along. After all these years, all this life, all we’ve shared and all we’ve missed, I can finally say what I hope one day my own son will say of me, and I’ll fight like hell to make it so. I’m proud to have this man as my father.