Dad sits in front of me, acoustic guitar in hand, honey-colored body with a walnut-stained neck. He’s always carrying around that damn thing. The body’s worn where he slaps it with his thumb as he strums, says he’s keeping beat. He’s been telling me that for as long as I can remember.
“I’ve been working on something new,” he mentions as he adjusts his grip on the guitar. There’s more to his statement, but I struggle to conceal a yawn as soon as the words fall from his mouth. I feign interest, smile, and listen attentively. His fingernails aren’t the right color at all. My entire life he was a smoker. Ashtrays and layers of sticky brown tar on the windshield until the smell of a passing smoker makes me homesick for a home I was too young to really know. After two open-heart surgeries and lung cancer, he’s decided to kick the habit, so they’re no longer nicotine-yellow.
I look at his face and try to recognize some of him in me. It’s not there, not that I can see. His blue eyes faded pale with age, are gazing off somewhere in the middle-nowhere, probably looking for the next words in his new song. His beard is weak and patchy. There’s a brown area on his cheek that I’m sure gets bigger every time I see him. He never talks about it, and I never mention it.
It’s been two years, maybe more, since the last time he visited his grandchildren. Today is the first day, he’ll ever see his great-grandkids. He’s always had a whole lot of nothing going on in a place… any place that was nowhere around me.
The conversations aren’t worth having anyway. I can guess everything he says before he says it. Maybe that’s what makes me a good writer. I don’t need to hear what he’s actually saying because I’ve already played out the conversation a hundred times in a dozen variants in my mind before the words actually trudge out.
Maybe that’s true, or maybe I only hear what I think he’ll say because I think he’s somehow like me, an older, more run-down version, always looking for the next big thing, seventy-years-old and still trying to make it. The thought stings more than I can put into words. I wonder if my children look at me and think the same thing.
I think about the drawer full of CDs in my desk, a new album every year. Dad hands them out like Christmas presents every time we see him. It’s the reason I never give my books to anyone in the family unless they ask for a copy. The albums come with an implied requirement. I will never use them, never listen to them. At the same time, I will never be able to get rid of them. I’ve been stupidly collecting them since he left for the great state of California back when he was still recording on cassette tapes and I was ten.
He’s not bad, as I sit and listen to him sing and play in my living room. His time in the bohemian wilds of Santa Cruz and New Orleans has definitely paid off, but still, there’s something about his singing voice that grates on me. Maybe it reminds me of my botched childhood, the relationships and memories I’ll never have. Maybe it’s because there’s something about his voice that sounds like my own. Either way, I can’t wait for the song to be over.
“Not bad,” I say, “I can imagine that being played during the introduction to a movie. The camera shot in my mind is from a plane or a drone looking down at a forest: someplace green and rural while the names of actors and producers appear and disappear from the shot.” I’m not lying when I say it. The song makes me think about some down-to-earth drama with an obligatory romance and life lesson where the people might be simple, but they are true and honest. Not my type of people, not my type of movie.
He’s only been in town for a few hours and I’m already playing through the excuses in my head. Anything to get out of the situation. It’s my own house, and I’m dying to think of a good reason to do something else, anything else. I get up to check on the kids, who absolutely don’t need to be checked up on when he says something completely unexpected and uncharacteristic. “I left because I thought you’d have a better chance without me.”
I’m dumbfounded and furious all at once. “Oh?” I respond. I can’t even look at him I’m so mad. How many times has he told himself that to have the audacity to say it out loud? At what point do our lies become our truths? I sit back down, scratch my beard, and wish I had a drink in my hand. Anything to make the next few minutes more tolerable.
What kind of drug-addled hippy asshole implies that he left his three children and move across the fucking country to be heard from only once a year on our birthdays, for altruistic purposes, for them?! A card with a hundred-dollar bill inside. That was what he chose to be. A goddamned birthday card.
I want to scream, “I don’t care what you tell yourself, 90% of being a good parent is showing the fuck up,” but I don’t. My cheeks are burning, and my temple is throbbing, but I keep my calm. My wife tells me I have an expression that she hates. She says I look at her like she’s a raving lunatic sometimes. It’s not something that I have control over, but I’m certain it was the expression on my face at that moment.
“You know my dad, Carl, was a bad dude. He beat my mother and did some messed up stuff to us kids.” He leaves the words to settle on the floor.
I’m not sure how to respond. Does he want me to lean in and wait for him to continue, nod my head in understanding, or say something encouraging? I think I know where this conversation is going, and then, he pulls the rug right out from under me again.
“There was one time when Pat, Tim, Pam, and I were playing around the train tracks. We were just jumping back and forth over them when the old man came out. He had been drinking… again. He made us all lay down on the train tracks, and then he tied our hands behind our backs. After what seemed like forever, he let us up but made us spend the rest of the day with our hands tied up. He demanded in curses and slurs that we know what it feels like to get our limbs cut off because that’s what would happen if we played on the train track.” He cleared his throat in the way someone does when they are being strangled by their own emotions. It wasn’t what he said, but what he didn’t say. His sister, Pam, decided to lay down on some railroad tracks in Florida after being switched to yet another in a long line of antidepressants back in the mid-’90s. “I’m pretty sure she ended her life as a final fuck-you to that monster,” he says. I’m not sure if he’s talking to me or himself.
It takes him a few seconds, but he comes back to the point he was trying to make. “I could feel the same thing in me. After all that, I didn’t know how to be a good father.”
In my imagination, I snipe back, “How the hell do you think I felt without any father to show me? I had to make all this up on my own, and I made mistakes, but I sure as hell did a lot better than you did.” But I don’t. I remain silent and nod my head.
“I know it’s hard to see sometimes, but I wanted better for you. I was messed up when you were young, self-medicating…” he doesn’t say it, but he’s thinking about the horrors he saw in Vietnam. He’s thinking about his abusive father and God only knows what was done in that small town white-siding house when his dad was black-out drunk and popping every pill he could get his hands on. “You’ve done a good job with your kids, Son. I’m proud of you.”
I want to avoid the compliment and say, “well… they all survived,” but catch myself at the last minute and avoid mentioning death. My wit fails me, so I simply say, “Thanks, Dad.”
“I know it was tough, but the only way I could figure out to do right by you kids was to not be here. It was the only way I knew how to break the pattern.”