A Note on the Essay
In the fall of 2009, while we were discussing Joe Brainard’s I Remember, one of my writing students said that she thought Brainard’s book, which she loved, was a kind of one-off project. He’d been “lucky” to discover the form of that book, which repeats the phrase “I remember….” at the start of every entry. Surely no one else could get away with that kind of artifice in memoir anymore, she said. Many in the class agreed.
So I set that up as a task for that class—to find a structure or repeating phrase that they might use to write about their own autobiographical material. We had talked about the variety of structures—sonnets, sestinas, and so on—that poets could use to generate work. What were structures that prose writers might use? That was the first question. Is any repeating form simply a gimmick, or did the particular phrase affect what could be remembered? That was the question I didn’t pose directly to them, but hoped they’d find out for themselves.
For the first assignment I gave that class, adapted from an exercise by Carol Bly in her book Beyond the Writers’ Workshop, I asked them to write a 5000-word autobiography in three days. In addition, because I’d recently been irritated by a lack of sentence-level attention among undergraduates, I made a rule that they couldn’t use the same sentence structure twice in a row. I had to remind them of the five basic sentence types—fragment, simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex—that they had to work with.
It was, many of them said, the hardest thing they’d ever had to do, to think in terms of sentence structure while they were trying to narrate the story of their lives. To work in that kind of double-sighted way—one eye on structure and one eye on story—made them, they said, write in ways they didn’t like. It was strange, unnerving. One student likened it to Cubism. Another to jumping Double Dutch. Most of them admitted that they liked the challenge. Everyone agreed that they ended up remembering things they hadn’t thought about in years.
At some point I thought this work with sentences might also lead my students to be more conscious of the rhythms and pressures of the various sentence types. I created a list of all the possible permutations of those five basic sentence types. I gave each type a number (1=fragment, 2=simple, 3=compound, 4=complex, and 5=compound-complex) and then generated all the possible combinations of those numbers: 12345, 12354, 12435, 12453, 12534, 12543, and so on until finally I arrived at 54321.
What if, I said to myself, I imagined each one of those clusters of five sentences as a single paragraph? What if I wrote an essay that fulfilled that form? What would I write about? For a while, the form itself silenced everything I came up with. Then I thought about my father, a figure who continues to be an inexhaustible mystery to me. I’d wanted for a long time to write about him, to write something “big” about him, but the depth of his complexities had always stifled any attempt I made to write about him. So maybe it might be useful to test this irresistible engine with that immovable subject, to see what would happen. I knew I could fill up the 120 paragraphs, even if I didn’t know ahead of time with what. At least I might generate some new thinking on the man. And since every piece of writing is a failure in some way, what did I have to fear about failing at this? Even if I just filled out the form, wouldn’t that be at least some kind of success?
The Big Father Essay
Carter Road. My first house was next to the enormous pond my father’s father created. For my father beans were the musical fruit, but the ass was the actual instrument. If I have a sudden hunger for limes, it might be because of his Old Spice. If I understand the note he wrote me once when I asked him to tell me about his childhood, I think he understood his life to mean afflictions, but at the time I was grateful to have a medical history.
Church Street after that. My mother wanted that house to transform us. There was no musical instrument he understood, or he never played one, better say. Whatever else there was to despise, there was always the smell of Old Spice. When we went through the old photos late in his life, I was surprised by a picture of a cousin I’d never seen, and my father said without a trace of irony that it was Lenny Bland, the black man who’d been hired to raise me. My father evades me at every turn, even after all this time I’ve spent reassembling him.
When his mother strangely took to her bed, for instance. Patience comes from my mother’s side. Whatever else I know, I know he was a Republican. “Somewhere,” a friend writes, “in all this is the thread from which you will write a longer piece, but you will have to be patient.” My mother’s were the careful, quiet half of the family, and my father’s side was the loud, reckless side, whose hearts gave out early, even though both sides had lived through the Great Depression.
The hot leather stink of his boots. He worked hard I always thought. If he didn’t shave, his kisses were bristly, prickly, ticklish. Even if I didn’t remember Christmas or his birthday or father’s day, I knew my mother would buy a bottle of Old Spice that would be my present to him, or she’d buy a pack of snow-white tube socks to enclose his aching feet. There were lemons but I don’t remember a single lime in any of our houses.
Not the names of the dogs before us. His company made big money once supplying the new interstate with sand and with gravel for concrete. Suddenly money was coming out of the ground, truckfuls of brown sand, endless amounts of crushed gravel, excavated all the way down to the water tables, and even though clay stained that ice-cold water brown, we’d play in those water holes during the summers. His father had given him the company, and he had jumped at the chance. When we came home later, we stank of mud and sulfur.
Those opaque Ray Bans. The exhausted pits became ponds. Where the sun beat down, the earth grew impossible to touch, and we likewise turned lizard-quick, slippery. Even though the clay could be sold and hauled away, we thought of it as ours. Sometimes one of the big trucks would get caught in one of the mud pits and have to be winched out, but those were not the places where we usually dove.
Ward Cleaver, Mike Brady, Archie Bunker, Mr. Cunningham: what other models? No one expected our fathers to do much beyond buy things, and I wonder whether fathers were relieved or hurt or both by that. We laughed at them. When we weren’t ducking from warning swats, we were busy going through their closets for clues. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know we’d grow up into men one day, but we did think we could avoid becoming boring, filling up with regrets, and even if we stayed in that small town, sighing so much.
Each sentence’s facts. The men appeared at sunset and they left before sunrise usually. On weekends, we ran off into the woods and built forts. When the occasional chore required both my father and I to collaborate, to cooperate, I remember a peculiar painful happiness attending the (always) physical labor, and I think it was the same for my father, although neither of us dared to speak of it. Where feelings were so fragile, words were in fact the enemy.
Sentences as memory. Each sentence is a photograph, or every sentence is a little recovery of a sense. The complexity of those years astounds me now that I try to capture them. The five sentence types can’t represent the five senses. Sentences are devices to manipulate the senses, even as they carry us around, forward, backward, toward the unknown, and we live in an age when people will believe in millennia-old sentences despite the evidence of their own senses.
Enough. There are certain things to be aware of in memory, but they should be a challenge to remembering, not a replacement for it. When my father came home drunk after midnight, he was a monster. I would hold my breath and pray my mother would somehow not respond to him singing so loudly, but she confronted him every time, even though it did no good, even when his voice turned ugly. She was so tired of his nonsense.
Me at the top of the stairs listening. My father’s voice would change from playful to angry suddenly, and my mother’s voice would refuse to change. When he started to shout, I’d walk downstairs as noisily as I could, and I’d yell at them both to stop. That was my job apparently. If it hadn’t been for me, they might have gone their separate ways long before they did.
When he himself was a child and tied to the front porch, having to listen to his father beat his mother, a thing I only heard from my mother, just before I began this piece. I never hid the shotgun, but I should have at least tried. When one of them mentioned that gun after midnight, I would make my body appear before them, so they would remember something other than anger. Because I was the product of their creative power, my body was a sign, a threshold, another urge. It was hard to be there nonetheless.
That no one ever liked my father’s father. Since for years there was nowhere else to live, we lived with my father. We stopped talking to him about anything. We’d given him enough chances to think about our feelings, and we’d grown tired. When my mother walked into the living room to say he’d tried to commit suicide, an angry eighteen-year-old me waved her out of the way of the TV, but she told me the whole thing again anyway.
In case I missed it. Six months earlier, once I’d been accepted to college, she had asked for a divorce. The ship was sinking. When my mother was done telling me what had happened, I said, “Okay,” and went back to Bewitched. It was another thing he’d fucked up, and from then on I was simply ashamed of him.
And yet. When I needed money to finish my last term of college in England, I called him. I drove to his house and I sat at his table, which was from our old house. His new wife took a picture of us together. When I look at it now, I think it’s the meeting of the angry son and the guilty father, and I wonder how we could both actually smile that hard.
To side with, to side against, to choose sides. My brother is not the Prodigal Son, the one who went away and came back ashamed, because my brother never actually returned. I was not the Prodigal Son nor was my father anyone worth mythologizing. Although no one knew then, I had been writing poems about our relationship, so I had been in fact mythologizing us both. I got a lot of praise from teachers for “bravery.”
How long to leave a boy tied to the porch? Even though he probably didn’t have the money, he found the money I asked for. Because he’d gone away, had gone to England as a young man, I think he understood what it might mean for me, but to me I was simply asking for payment for years of having to put up with him. It was that simple. The smile on my face in the photo suggests of course that it was not simple at all, or maybe I should say my simplicity looks painful.
England, the other place he’d been—what?—free, happy, outside himself? When I asked him, late, about his time stationed in Derby during Korea, he said simply it was the happiest time of his life. When I got there, I forgot to call anyone back home for days which terrified my mother, but my father didn’t even notice, since I had by then become a silence. My mother, on the other hand, always says my brother’s birth and my birth were the best things about her life, and only lately have I begun to ask about other joys she must have had. She has yet to say he made her happy.
Out of fragments, always. When I drive her home one night, a friend whose house I’ve only been to once is amazed that I remember how to get there, and I admit that some part of me keeps track of landmarks, safe houses, escape routes. Sometimes we’d have to flee the house. My mother would tell me to get some clothes together, and we’d pack ourselves, with the three dogs, into her brown Chevette. Whenever I drive by a campground, I still have the urge to check in, sleep overnight in the back of the car, return to the house the next morning as if nothing had happened.
Always out of fragments. Although I learned to steer by riding in front of my father on our enormous green riding lawnmower, I learned how to shift the night my mother broke her right hand punching my father in the head to slow him down, and we had to get lost before he could recover. Our lives became ritualized by the years: anxious waiting, bitter argument, threats then violence, escape or collapse. Originally I thought I’d be a novelist because they seemed to make money, which might buy me freedom. The first poet I ever heard changed everything, or maybe I should say that everything that was fragmented in me began to throb.
After the night closed down the town, after the old sign-off pattern on the television, after the dogs settled on the beds and began to snore. After the sound of his red Ford truck’s tires on the graveled driveway slid to a stop, the door banged open, and we waited in the dark, hoping he’d just fall asleep this time. The compound sentence links two independent clauses together, but that linkage isn’t always comfortable. My mother would go downstairs first. If any good ever came from her doing that, I wasn’t there to witness it.
My father, dogged by his father’s temper and his mother’s depression. If my own mother’s confrontations ever did any good, I’d be surprised, yet I’d like to think, and maybe she did too, it might have worked. His voice, overloud, said her name, and her voice began as a hush so low I’d have to imagine it in the space after his. If I had a dime for every time I wished he’d simply die, I’d be a rich man. I sat at the top of the stairs listening, wishing.
To have been literally tied to the porch like a dog. Even though 30 years have passed, even though he’s been dead for ten years, I expect someone to burst through the front door after midnight, and I have prepared, hidden my weapons. Whenever I walk into a strange room, the first thing I look for is the exit. I can sometimes catch myself. You’d think after all these years that habit of anxiety might disappear, but you’d be wrong.
The arrowheads that went missing at the end. If I remember right, I was always a nervous kid, so not everything can be blamed on my father. Whatever source of chaos he was, eventually I have to stop blaming him exclusively for the state of my nerves. He was also the only one in my family to say it was okay to want to be a writer, and he, drunk or not, brought two Doberman puppies home that Christmas, in 1973. Those dogs gave me something to hold onto.
I was nine. 24 Church Street. We had just moved into our new house in town, and I had just started middle school. If I remember correctly, I was just making new friends. While we waited for him to come home that Christmas Eve, which then was the night we unwrapped presents, I rehearsed the ways he might destroy the peace, but the moment he walked through the door, two black puppies in his arms, snow blustering in around him, his drunk voice saying Merry Christmas too loudly, I was only too glad to forgive him everything.
I’m a sucker for dogs. Cats, fine, but dogs oh yes please. Fritz (my dog) is nearly as big as I am in the Christmas photo of us, and that is the beauty of the picture. When a boy and a dog grow up together, the parents can breathe a little easier, for even if they fail to remember the boy listening upstairs as they fight, his dog will not forget to lean against him. The dog doesn’t think of melodrama or sad cliché, since all he cares about is who has the leash, who pours out the food, who seems to be in control.
I refuse to forget my father brought those dogs home. Despite my mother’s face. My mother sighed the sigh of the woman who will be forced now to be the bearer of hard labor, since she had only a choice between silence and disappointing me. Most likely I was already rubbing my lips over Fritz’s soft ears, and my brother had fallen to the floor in front of her to play with Dolph. Later, when we all went our separate ways, she was stuck with the hard job of putting them down, a thing she still can’t talk about, and I refuse to forget my guilt about that as well.
That sadness is for another essay. A long one about her. Still, if this essay is about him, she has to enter into it. If it’s to be my inquiry, my discovery, my work, he was most visible only in reference to her, or rather I saw him mostly by watching her watch him. He was the thing we could not predict, and we became experts in catastrophic planning.
The good news is of course that you can trust us in an emergency. To know where to run. Because we didn’t want to ever be able to save him, we didn’t want to learn CPR, but other than that, you can trust us. My mother knows how to drive with a broken hand, and I know how to sit on the lap of a drunk man and tell him I loved him without flinching. Because we were all liberated by anger, we could be whatever was necessary.
What was necessary of course was that the neighbors not know anything was wrong. Not say anything. Although they’d once seen him push her off the porch right in front of them, it was important that no one admit it, and we should just let sleeping dogs lie. Although they saw the police come to the house more than a few times, it was important never to talk about it. Even now my mother asks me not to write about it, and I feel it necessary to invent a form that forces me to generate the truths.
The truth is I couldn’t forget anything. I remember around sixteen being terrified that I might turn 40 someday and have no memory of how I got there, and now I think I got it completely wrong. 180 degrees wrong. The real terror would be that I’d remember everything. Both remembering and forgetting are terrible, but if I were given the choice then, I could only have chosen the quiet of forgetting to the riot of remembering.
The truth is I didn’t have to say anything. In the end saying nothing was the sharper weapon, and it was the only weapon I had. Looking away. Whole days went by in which I said nothing to him, in which I made no eye contact, and after the divorce was finalized, whole peaceful weeks went by. Walking the dogs out into the woods, I let them off their leashes and ran as fast and far as I could go with them.
What did I have to talk to him about? I never understood sports, and I didn’t care about engines. If he had apologized just once, it might have meant something. If. If he had apologized and then changed, everything would have been saved, and I wouldn’t be writing these sentences.
What was there to say? We couldn’t love him anymore, and we wanted him to go away. When your absence is sweeter than your presence, you should go. When your family stops talking to you, fathers of the world, it is time to leave them, and let them try to live without you. Beyond you.
To his credit, my father did move out and stay away. He never (that I remember) went back to that house, and soon we were sleeping all the way through the night. Whatever he did after midnight then, he did to himself, but we’d changed the locks in any case. Dreaming in the quiet. Although occasionally I asked him if I could borrow his car, it was with the understanding that he owed me anything I asked for and was not love.
I sculpted his guilt into forms I could use. I twisted his guilt one way, then another, and I felt that he deserved every twist. Even if I’m making compound-complex sentences out of that confusion, you should not believe that any of it was easy. Even after all this time has passed, it’s almost impossible to describe the difficulties. Only express as syntax.
I go back and forth about everything. Even though part of that is writerly practice, I had to hate him after the divorce because to do otherwise would have betrayed my mother. Self interests. After the afterward, though, there was some time for after-thoughts, and I needed to calculate an aftermath. Now that he’s in the afterlife, in memory, in other words, now that he’s helpless to inflict more damage, maybe he can be thought about, and maybe he doesn’t have to be hated.
There were the monarchs for instance. Whatever else he’d done, one day he came home in the afternoon with a bag of milkweed plants. Caterpillars munching the thick, gluey leaves. He’d been cleaning up around the sandpit fences, and he’d found a place where milkweed had taken over, and then he saw all the caterpillars whom he did not want to kill, whatever else he’d done. I said yes and I took the bag.
I found a clean aquarium in the basement. I stuffed it with milkweed I found near the railroad tracks, near the back fences of neighbors, in many abandoned places where I never before thought to go. I found more caterpillars as well, and soon I had a huge population to feed. Milkweed sap everywhere. When I came home from school, the first thing I did was check on the caterpillars, and before I left for school, I ran around the neighborhood with my garden shears and a shopping bag.
They grew all summer. Whatever else he did, the caterpillars began to attach themselves to the fine metal mesh I’d stretched over the top of the aquarium. The top of the aquarium looked like a collection of lopped off thumbs, turning turquoise, so the chrysalides appeared. The delicacy of each chrysalis amazed me, especially the tiny gold buttons at the top of the shell, and I dragged other kids in to look at them, as if it were my handiwork, my jewelcrafting. Wow.
I kept the aquarium stocked with milkweed leaves. Until they all pupated, I kept watch and kept the milkweed fresh. When the first chrysalis went transparent, I sharpened my ear, so the sound of fluttering wings might bring me running. Chrysalis like shed, sun-burnt skin, monarch like a swollen thumb, slowly exercising nearby. I took each one cupped in my hands out to the porch, and I opened up the cup and waited.
It always took the butterfly a minute. Before it flew, each butterfly stood there in the sunlight, in the warmth of my hands, exercising its wings. Although butterflies have muscles, it’s hard to imagine them, but they don’t require your imagination to work. Did my father ever sit and watch, or did he ever himself release a butterfly? Don’t.
In the early days, he came back from Canada with coolers full of fish. When he came home from Canada, the photos were always the same sets of cabin interiors, with red-eyed men staring into the camera, cases of beer lining the wall and fifths of whiskey everywhere, so I came to think of his time away from us as painful, awful. Walleye, pike, long as a man’s forearm. He and I would sit at the edge of the dock, and he’d slice open and empty the fishes’ bodies into our pond. Where he threw the insides of those Canadian fish, our American fish would flash and shine.
There was no question he liked being outside. He liked being outside, even if it were raining, even if the whole world turned gray and full of water, and we left him out in it like some bad dog. Or. He kept himself outside as if he were a bad dog. The rain fell down in buckets, but he just kept casting his lines.
He never got over being tied to the porch, my mother said. When I reached out for him from my mother’s arms, I pursed my lips, and I saw him start then stop, a queer thing glittering in his eye that I later learned to call thinking. I loved the bristle of his face, and I think that love scared him. Once we started to shake hands, he and I were never the same.
Suddenly my father was separate. When I wrote that last paragraph, I realized it might also mean that the kind of love I had for him, that real love, frightened him, and that would explain his inability as a husband and father later. He recoiled from real love, and he wept for lack of it during his worst episodes. Because his own mother had been so unreliable about love, his father so withholding, real love was a thing to break the heart, wasn’t it? For him.
I learned to swim in his arms. When I try to think of the times he touched me—a hand on the shoulder, a hug, a kiss on the forehead, there is nothing, yet I want to find something where we touched. Except for the times when I sat on his lap saying I love you to stop him from threatening my mother, there is nothing. When I lied to him. All those years there was no touching between us but the threat of one of us beating the other.
At seventeen, I took judo classes. When he asked me what I’d learned so far, I said put your arms around me like you’re going to kill me, and he did and I slipped down and threw him over my shoulder. When I got up, I was terrified he’d be angry. He was on his back, but I think he was more stunned than angry. His son.
A man has to protect himself and he needs someone to teach him. “Well, Punk?” Even now, I still have not been properly punched. A man should know how to get back up after being hit because life will not be easy. Because he had everything given him, because he didn’t actually go to war, my father may not have ever been hit, so he may never learned how to get up again.
He made mistakes and they disappeared into silence the next day. Burnt toast. My mother at first said nothing, hoping he’d change. Her silence got entangled in his silence, and one day she found herself discovering some missing money in the company books although he’d never said anything about it. Because it was his business, he didn’t think it was very illegal to take a little bit out of his own till every now and then.
That money might have bought things we needed but he most likely lost it drinking and betting on horses. Burnt his scrambled eggs. Because she was his wife and did the books, she didn’t at first think it was anything. She was surprised no one noticed. Only later did she regret not turning him in to the IRS, when he hadn’t changed despite all her silence and hadn’t changed because of her threats, and then there were the other women too.
What could he hear by then, and what voice could she have used? Blackened coffee. These were the days when I was very young, when I’d wake up early and find him at the kitchen table, sitting in the dark. He would be a glowing red cigarette-end, an intake of air, an exhale, and I would walk in my pajamas into the dense cloud of second-hand smoke around him because I was glad not to be alone.
He would make me breakfast sometimes but that would mean the lights had to come on. Those chugging grunting old coffee pots. One morning sitting there in that dark kitchen in that early house, I saw a turtle burying her eggs under the willow, and after he made sure it wasn’t a snapper and we were sure she was done, we went out together and dug the eggs up with tablespoons.
A neighbor had an incubator and he hatched them for us. The warmth of those strange eggs fresh out of her. Whether it’s true or not, I like to think that summer was the same summer I learned to swim, and here is another time he held me, my legs beating the water around us, until I could be trusted not to drown. When we got the turtles back from the neighbor, we let them go, one quarter-sized green turtle after another into the pond. I was told I had to let such things go.
There were good days and there were days that were terrible. I loved the weeks he disappeared with some other men to fish. His naked crying once over his sister Dora’s sudden death when I was 15 that suddenly made me feel sorry for him. When my father came home after his suicide attempt, after his “therapy,” he told us he’d been saved. When my father came back after his therapy, he hugged me and said he was sorry, but I knew that old trick and only sighed, “Okay.”
Promises were always being made and I knew a number of people for whom Jesus was just another form of drinking. That’s hardly surprising is it? The pastor who slept with one of my teenaged friends, the minister who excommunicated his daughter for marrying a black man. My father wore a sheepskin coat, the kind that looks like an inverted sheep, fleece inside and skin outside, and I stood there while he hugged me like a man washed up on a friendly shore. After my mother and I smiled patiently and listened politely to his stories, he unwrapped his presents for us: large ceramic bowls he’d painted as recovery.
I don’t believe he was an alcoholic but I do believe he didn’t know what to do with his unhappiness but to drink. The therapy he received was equally uninformed, a therapy of distractions. Even though it was too large to be useful, the bowl he gave me was painted with figures from the zodiac. Change, pocket debris. Did anyone actually ask him questions about what he wanted or did they all think a white, middle-class heterosexual man had everything he wanted, even though all the evidence pointed otherwise?
I hated him for being weak and then I hated him for being stupid. A doe-eyed ingénue, as processed as Velveeta, a nonsurgical lobotomy. Even a drunk seemed better that the erased thing that came back to us, although I’m not proud to say that. Because it is naturally hard for a child to watch a parent process change, it is necessary for that parent not to end up more helpless than before, and it’s important not to mistake ceramics for real transformation. A boy tied on the porch all his life.
It’s hard to talk to a man with nothing inside, and it’s hard to know where to look at a mess without feeling angry. You learn to drive long distances. The man who wants to be good can be good, but it’s hard to be truly good if the man thinks that goodness is the same as being simple. As many, of course. As if a dependency can be made whole by an independence, a complex sentence goes here.
After each disaster, our small town looked the other way and the little league went back to playing baseball. I was already planning my escape. My mother was already planning her escape too, and a year after his suicide attempt, when he had gotten back on his feet, she sold the house to a cousin and moved into her mother’s house. When I helped him move into the apartment he found, the single serving cans on his shelves unsettled me. A child’s serving of green beans.
He ate the black jelly beans I didn’t like and he loved ribbon candy at Christmas. When football was on TV, there was no argument I could use to convince him to let me watch something else. As for his favorite teams? All I heard was him yelling in the living room. When he yelled for another beer, my mother would take it to him at first, and when she said to me, “let’s take a drive,” I knew that meant she’d had enough.
Did I tell you he taught me how to drive and he always created a magnificent garden in every house we lived in? The gardens were where he was always happy, sweating, tearing up the ground, weeding, tying and staking and pruning as if he was repairing his own life. Zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, carrots, peas, corn, squash, beans, and rhubarb by the fence. We ate almost everything he grew which must have helped financially and psychically, and what we didn’t eat immediately my mother would usually can in Ball glass jars.
I don’t remember that he had a favorite music nor do I remember if he had a favorite book. When I think back, I can’t remember a single book in his hand. He could not talk about painting or sculpture or opera or dance. Out of what, therefore, to make an inner life? Although he didn’t have any cultural interests, there was football, fishing, gardening, all the natural world he couldn’t stop digging into, eating, yelling at, but those led him away from articulation, away from identity, away from Dick Oaks, to whom everything was given.
He did watch the news every night and I learned to stay quiet then too. Although I didn’t usually understand it, the balding men on the Nightly News made every report seem serious. Of course that was a time when news came once a day. Whatever else I might remember, those years were the Vietnam years, the Civil Rights years, and the Watergate years, so a man had to watch to know what was happening to his country. All inside us.
There is the mysterious loss of the arrowhead collection he inherited and I thought I would too. After George Washington and Colonel Sullivan burned the Iroquois out of upstate New York, our ancestors rushed in to buy up the newly uninhabited land. First they built a hotel, the earliest one on what was then the Pre-Emption Line between what was then Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and then they raised a church. Plowing up buried caches of Iroquois implements to make gardens. The iron oxide stones they found made warpaint.
It rained and they cut down trees. On the days they could build houses, churches, or barns, they did. When cold nights came out of Canada, they slept together and someone always seemed to be born the next fall. God was their television. Except He watched them.
I just had to check again the day my father died, and it embarrasses me to admit that. On the other hand, I’ve never forgotten his birthday was today because it was a day I looked forward to before I learned to hate him, and he became a sad spot on the calendar. May 19, 1932, and December 12, 2000. The gift was always the same Old Spice and white tube socks. When I handed him each gift I was painfully aware I hadn’t really bought it.
He was a Taurus, and the rest of us were water and air. I don’t remember a single one of his birthdays, but we must have done something special at least a couple of times because we were still nice until I was around eight or nine. Cakes, singing, the day off? What did it mean to him that we didn’t do much for his birthday, even if he didn’t care? Did he care?
How well do I remember anything, and how do I trust what I do remember? Although I can’t trust anything, I do know that by 46, my age now, my father had two sons—me at fourteen and my brother at twenty-five—who hated him, and he knew one of us was gay and the other one wanted to be a writer. He might just have been finding these things out, actually. That he had two gay sons. He was the last reproductive male of his branch of the family tree, even if I can’t trust myself enough to know how he’d feel about it.
The aim though is to be true, and the lesser aim is to be factual. I think we might have gone out to dinner, if he were still alive, but I know we’d talk about nothing of consequence. I still remember the breakfast where he called the waitress’ breasts “boobies” and smiled, pleased with himself. If he were still alive, I’d probably (and more likely) still be ignoring him. As a discomfort is often ignored.
Is this a rescue, and if so whose rescue is it? Considering the way “liberation” has been misused to mean attack, appropriation, and destruction, I ought to be careful, but I do mean to find him, find something to save. Even though I often regret it, he and I share many traits, including an irritation with the “ironic stance” many people use to carry them through life. A discomfort with ambiguity. It’s perhaps not so strange literature didn’t seem to interest him.
My father understood either sincerity or insincerity, but the states where those two embrace made him first restless, then angry. He liked to fix things, so when most of the world erupted in protests in the 60s and 70s, protests that demanded change, he was unprepared. The news he watched every night must have been confusing, as opposed to the sports shows where each team’s goals were clear. Poorly equipped for change, he’d yell at the television sometimes. Cronkite’s thick glasses in the days before contacts.
Among the things I was afraid of inheriting from my father, his snoring and his high-arched feet were the most frightening. At night, in moonlight, terrifying. His feet all his life were laced into heavy boots. It left his feet thickly calloused, white as grubs, and his toenails grew yellow and hard as shelf fungi. A man of his generation didn’t think about his feet, and even if he did, he didn’t know there was anything to be done that wasn’t vanity.
It was women who worried about their nails, although no man would ever let his fingernails grow past the fingertip. His nail clippers in my medicine cabinet. Men were expected to snore too. His snoring, however, was legendary, and whenever it came up, every one of us had a story to tell about a time when we heard it and thought the ceiling was falling in, a tornado was at the door, or someone was pushing heavy furniture very slowly over a wood floor. Whenever I peeked into his room at night, there he lay, open-mouthed, those frightening white feet kicked free of sheets.
His snoring was useful, a signal that meant we could drop our guards. While it lasted. Once my mother told me she wanted to drop a dead fly into his open mouth to see if he’d even notice, and it is hard to imagine how she slept beside him for so many years. I’m guessing she thought it was what she was supposed to do. When my mother was changing my infant brother in the middle of the night, my brother fired off a stream of piss that arced over her shoulder and hit our father right in the mouth, right in the middle of a snore, but that’s the only funny story I know about his waking up.
If I knew that story was true, I’d say it was foreshadowing much of my brother and father’s troubled relationship. Funny in an uncomfortable way. I have my own strange relationship to my father’s sleeping body, and I might as well admit it. Because there are secrets that are awkward, I have never told anyone about the nights I sneaked into his room and lay under his bed, and it gets stranger. I used to kiss his bare, white, fearsome feet.
Considering the real hatred I had for him, my need to do this at least three times really puzzles me. Astonishes me now. My best explanation is that, at sixteen, I really loved my father or I wanted to love him, and that my real love, which he blocked or the cultural physically blocked in almost every other way, filled me with a longing to kiss, to touch the only part of him I knew to be vulnerable. I was a thief, as excited as a lover. I didn’t want to have sex with him, but what other way was there to make contact?
Since he’s dead now, he won’t be embarrassed by this confession. This intimacy, its strangeness. The morning after the first time it happened, he said he had had the strangest dream about someone licking his feet, and I said it must have been one of the dogs, who truthfully then did like to lick our feet. Everyone agreed that was the most likely explanation, and I felt freed to breathe again. Explaining was, after all, what language did.
When the draft ended, I think everyone was relieved. My mother stopped planning my brother’s escape to Canada. Vietnam, our shadow. Meanwhile, the American Legion filled up with veterans all night, and my father was among the last to leave. I still don’t know how he managed to drive home as drunk as he always was, but however it happened, I hated the Legion for letting him loose among us civilians.
When he moved out, he still lived close by. It was a small town, after all. Three blocks away. Nineteen, I borrowed his car occasionally when I needed to go out of town, and I took advantage of his wish to keep me happy. It was a green Dodge Dart, and we simply parked it in the gravel alleyway that ran behind the houses.
One night I came home late and parked it as usual, where he could find it easily and use it himself. The next morning the phone rang too early. My father said he was disappointed with me, and he might have to take the car away. “If I couldn’t take care of it properly.” When I went out to see what had happened, there was a car whose front seat was full of wet blossoms, because I’d left the windows down all night and wind and a light rain did the rest.
It was stupid admittedly, whatever else he and I did after that. I drove the car around to our old house. I cleaned out the blossoms, and I dried what needed it. Since the interiors of cars in those days were largely plastic, there wasn’t much to dry, but that wasn’t the point. Anyhow.
Whatever he thought he was teaching me then, I needed to make a point of my own. I was seized by that idea. I went up to the attic, where he had stored let’s say twenty boxes of old lottery tickets, a discovery my mother and I made in the months after he left and about which my mother remarked, ”There’s your college education,” and I carried them all down and stacked them in the back seat of the car, ripping one open to litter the losing tickets across the front seat. Windfall. I found a card in the house and I wrote Happy Father’s Day on it.
When I was done, I drove the car back to where I’d parked it. He was going to use it that morning. Even though my mother hated my father above everyone else, when she heard what I’d done, she stared a long time at me, and she said she couldn’t believe I’d done that. I made myself sit on the porch, so I could see him find it all, have to get into the car somehow, and drive away. That I’d had it in me, my mother meant.
If he hadn’t already tried to kill himself and failed, I wouldn’t have tried to hurt him so deliberately. I decided I wasn’t going to feel sorry for being so angry, and I told my mother he had it coming. Which she had to agree with. She was done feeling sorry for him too. The year before, after his suicide attempt, she had gone to help him, but that was more out of old habit than sympathy or love.
When I think about his attempted suicide now, it surprises me. He had gotten up early, in the dark, driven out to the sand pit, and he’d unlocked the gate, driven his truck into the garage and pulled the garage door shut behind him. Despite the sign that said, Do Not Leave Engines Running. Was he also drunk or drunk still from the night before, or was he finally clear headed with intention, all his ways out closed? He left the engine running.
My cousin found him in time, although the stories are unclear to me. Did he have a hose attached to the exhaust pipe in his mouth, or was he just sitting on the ground behind the truck? What was left for him to live for? Honestly? Because we’d lived through so many nights when he’d threatened to kill himself, so many nights when he’d assured us we’d feel sorry for him at last, I was surprised he’d finally tried it, but I didn’t feel sorry for anything but his having failed again.
Because I myself have thought about suicide more than once, I worry about failing at it. I worry about being the son of a man who tried to kill himself, and I worry that his impatience and sudden anger might live on in and so endanger me. I worry about a lot of things. When I worry, though, I open up my journal and make myself write out my anxieties, and I’ve come to see sentences as both containment and articulation. Usually.
When my father had painful feelings, had shame, had to make a difficult choice, had to do anything that required some discussion, who did he have to talk to? His best friend had moved away, and his own family didn’t like to talk about difficult things. When you’ve turned everyone against you, you cannot ask them to help you when real problems happen, and you cannot blame them at all for not caring. A man with a hose of hot gases in his mouth. Sometimes the body just acts out a message.
After our relationship began again, the first thing my father and I always did was to go out to eat. He would ask me how I was and I’d tell him about anything interesting that I knew. When I saw him in his last years, he was crippled by emphysema and his second wife and his oxygen tank joined and frequently interrupted our little talks. After that, it became hard to see him. Gasping.
When his second wife blurted out that I was “a mistake,” my father shushed her. When he shushed her, I knew it was true, and I had that sense of the floor tilting. Gravity suddenly reversing. She had, to her credit, called me “Honey” then. “Honey, you knew you were a mistake, right” and “That’s not a surprise, is it.”
When I asked my mother about it, she said she “still had love to give.” When I thought about it, it did explain the eleven year difference between my brother and me, and it explained why all my cousins were much older. When I thought about it. At first I didn’t “think” about anything, and I just felt the room heave. It was as if I were being born again.
Because I was a mistake, I suddenly wasn’t sure what my relationship to my father should be. Before I was a mistake, I hadn’t ever asked if they had wanted me, but now it was all I could think about. My friends asked why it mattered. Because I hadn’t even thought to ask. My mother had wanted me, but my father had accepted me.
When I bring it up now, my mother says forget it. When I went to visit him, in those last gasping years, I went as someone to whom he owed answers, but I hadn’t expected that answer. I was unprepared to be like many other people. I was someone whose birth was unexpected, but I was not turned away. Like many lucky people.
When I finally adjusted to the contingency at the heart of my life, my relationship to my father changed. When I became a mistake, my need to make him a better man disappeared, and I could see him as an interesting, flawed, even complicated man. Something like destiny disappeared, and I could go on with my life. My gravity, his gravity. He was simply the father I had.
When my mother blurted out last year that he’d once asked her if she wanted to “Swing” with another couple, I didn’t immediately add that to his list of cruelties. Whatever it meant to my mother, I wondered what it meant to him, and I wondered what, besides the obvious sense of sexual entitlement my mother assigned to his question, it meant about him. Did it indicate a depth, a curiosity, or did it indicate simple selfishness? Was all his selfish behavior a cry for help? Mistake after mistake?
Whatever chaos he brought into my life, he was also the only one in my family to say it was okay to want to be a writer, and the black bag I pack with books and a journal every morning owes something to him. As does my house I bought with money made from teaching writing. Did he assume I’d write about him? I might as well have said I wanted to be a hot-air balloonist, I suppose, but the point is that he said go for it. Because I never saw him read a book, did he even care what a writer did?
Maybe he gave me permission because he felt he hadn’t been allowed to follow his passions, but the point was I heard yes. To me. Why take everything apart like this? Because he taught me to always know where the exits are in any room, I can’t help it. I might as well make something out of it, so I don’t have to be simply a victim.
After he left us and I left for college, I wrote many poems about him, but of course he didn’t know about that. Until later. One classmate asked me what my father would feel about them, but he missed the point of writing. I thought so anyway. Although I hope he’d recognize himself here, this wasn’t written for him.
Until the day he died in a white room, my father had maybe read only a few of my poems about him, but he did try to read them. Apparently. His second wife told me this, and he’d had to stop after a few. They were too painful, she said, because he had recognized himself. Those were painful for me too.
Although I understand the need to worry about another person’s privacy, a writer ought to be able to write about anything that’s truly happened to him, so roll that in your cigarette and smoke it. Ah, true? Although writing is sometimes a necessary thing, a counter-memory to what would otherwise be simplified by beatification or disappearance, it can also be extremely selfish. The point is not to make gods of the writer or the subject. Can writing be both selfish and true, or does it have to be one or the other?
Whatever chaos my father brought into our lives, he had little faith in thinking as an escape from the difficulties of feeling, and of course it isn’t. Only wants to be. Although thinking can help shape feeling, it isn’t the same thing. They are like two independent clauses in a compound sentence, or they are like two people who live together in the same house. Someone has to say something eventually.
Before I set out and drove the six hours through a snowstorm, around the edges of Buffalo, back toward home, following the big plows spraying salt or sand or some chemical, to his hospice bed where he was hanging on, hoping against hope, I hesitated; I almost didn’t return the phone call from his wife. Please come, she’d said. The end. By then he’d lost the use of his legs, but he could still talk. Before I set out, I waited two days.
When I arrived out of the snow, when I pulled into the local hospital parking lot where I’d been born 36 years ago, I was tired, but frankly I was afraid of what I’d find. His wife hugged and thanked me for coming. I who came by accident into his life. When she ushered me into his room, she gave me her seat and then left us alone. His right blue eye caught me, and I squeezed his still good right hand.
When he moved his mouth, there was only a rasp, not even a voice anymore, but there was a smile after that. I thought I knew what it meant. I sat down, and I began to tell him everything I could remember. Which was harder than I’d thought, and awkward. Because I wanted to be kind, at first I only talked about happy memories.
When, years after their divorce, my mother found out that I believed in magic, she snuck into my kitchen at midnight and lit one of my meditation candles, and she wished every pain she could upon my father while sticking pins into the wax. She thought he’d gotten off too easily. For years afterward, she cursed him for his cruelties, but the worst one was clearly remarrying and getting on with his life as if nothing had happened. When I found the candle and the pins in the sink in the morning, she confessed what she’d done. This.
Because I’d arrived late, the first day was short, and his wife came in after a little while smelling of cigarettes and asking me the questions she thought he would want to ask. I don’t really remember what we talked about. When she slipped away to smoke, I thought she might have married him thinking he’d save her from loneliness. All of us. On that first night we ordered out for two huge cheeseburgers, and we ate them in the waiting room like we were starving.
When they’d first married, my father had paid for her to get dentures to replace her bad natural teeth, so she thought he’d always be generous. The nurses came in regularly with little plastic cups of morphine. When we stopped talking, his breathing still went on, tearing huge chunks out of the air. We read our horoscopes and his—Taurus—and we took turns holding the hand. Helpless now.
When someone is dying in the room, bad television can be a relief, and we watched the ridiculous game shows, talk shows, and the various news. His eyebrows rose and fell to our questions, or we thought they were a response to us. But. On his white wall sunlight shrunk into thinner and thinner knives. When someone is dying in front of you, commercials can be a way of staying alive.
When my Aunt Betty came to sit, she told me how strange it all was, for hadn’t she, his older sister by nearly eighteen years, just held him as a baby? Hadn’t he just married my mother, and hadn’t he just gotten married to “that other woman”? Smoking outside. When his and her relationship went bad, when she didn’t really want to be around him anymore, she couldn’t say exactly. It didn’t matter now anyway.
When the nurses came in, they pressed a sponge to his lips, and they rubbed lotion on his feet. His white feet were smooth, human, and I wondered how long since he’d worn those old boots. Fluids built up inside him. Edema, a sign of the end. He was in the quicksand now, although he’d spent most of his life knowing when to stop digging.
For all the nights you came home drunk, threatening to kill yourself or us, you probably deserve this early death, I told him, but I waited until we were alone to say it. I’m still sorry, I added, and not everything was ruined. We survived and grew. When the hospice counselor came in to talk about the process, his wife admitted she couldn’t tell him it was okay to let go. I’d already.
When the great bison at Lascaux were discovered, it was by accident, and when lights followed shortly after, there must have been a fantastic silence. Suddenly the past steps forward, and it says we were not without your passions. On that third day, while we sat listening to my father’s great ragged breathing, I felt as if I were entering a primal scene. Where there was just breathing. It was hard to be there.
When, on that third day, there was no response to the doctor’s flashlight and the tubes in his side stopped draining altogether, we watched the nurses wipe his ass and penis without embarrassment, but his wife still wouldn’t tell him it was all right to let go. At the end of that day, the hotel room was completely dark, and I kept it that way. When they called before dawn the next morning for me to come, I didn’t know if I’d changed. I got in my truck and drove through the dark old city toward his body. Emily Dickinson’s birthday.
When I walked into the white room, my father looked like a piece of driftwood, mouth-open, dried out, washed up, and I kissed his still warm forehead. When I wrote that last sentence, I remembered suddenly that he often came back from places with large pieces of driftwood. Strange shapes. He liked seeing things where other people might not. I myself have a collection of sticks I picked up at each of the houses where I’ve lived, and god knows I love strange shapes.
Despite the activity that we whirled through in the next days, I felt unbelievably still inside, but it wasn’t as if I wanted to die too. Although he hadn’t planned it, his death eased my own fear of dying. Of the end. I always paid more attention to what he did than what he said, and this was true here too. I should thank my cousin Dale for taking care of everything else.
When he was dead, there was a funeral, and I went with my partner, whom my father’s second wife hugged immediately, scaring him a bit. After he re-straightened his tie, he gave me the look that said Oh, I see. Dead was the only way he ever saw my father. Without the nervous glances. My father looked old in his light blue suit, but of course everyone said the mortician had done a good job.
Even though the pastor, an old friend of my father’s drinking days, and my father’s second wife wanted me to sit up front, I declined, and I said I wanted to stay where I was, in the middle of the room surrounded by my father’s two remaining sisters, Aunt Betty and Aunt Berta. Neither of them liked his second wife much, when that conversation came up. She was too religious for our family. Too religious meant, I think, that she was too desperate, and it meant that she wasn’t very smart. Not us.
When the pastor began, he first apologized for his voice, and then, after switching on a cassette player behind him, he began to sing a country song whose name I don’t remember anymore. Whatever chaos my father had brought into our lives, I didn’t expect his eulogy to be a karaoke performance. I knew the pastor though, so I forgave the oddness. Strange shapes again. It fit the man.
Before we drove back home, we stopped at my cousin Dale’s house, and we spent a lot of time looking at photos, my aunts telling me who strangers were, where pictures took place. When I said I’d like to have some of them, they were put in a big garbage bag and then put in a closet. I would come back I said, and I’d go through them all. They disappeared though. Thrown away maybe, a mistake.
Jeff Oaks is the author of three poetry chapbooks, Shift (Seven Kitchens Press, 2010), The Moon of Books (Ultima Obscura Press, 2000), and The Unknown Country (State Street Press, 1992). A new chapbook, Mistakes with Strangers, will be published by Seven Kitchens Press in 2013. The recipient of three Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships, he has published poems most recently in Rhino, Field, Bloom, Court Green, Zocalo Public Square, and Poemeleon. His poem “Saint Wrench” was selected for Best New Poets 2012 by Matthew Dickman. His essays have appeared in My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, and in Creative Nonfiction. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh.