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Fiction Sad

My father was bald. The kind of bald that litters the top of a man's skull with sunspots and leaves an incomplete tire of hair around the sides and back of their head. It's the kind of bald that's given to pathetic men. The kind of bald that tricks pathetic men into thinking they have enough hair to take to the barbershop. My father was pathetic, but he knew he didn't belong at the barbershop, so he cut his hair himself when he needed a trim. 

"I'm saving all this damn money on haircuts. You can clean the fucking bathroom." 

He'd tell my mother when he was done using the clippers, and she'd complain about the mess in the sink.

My father had a lot of hats in his car; their bills would wedge into the crevasse of the back windshield and the backseat. But I don't think of my father as a hat guy; I think of him as I think of myself: he was a pathetic bald guy who cut his own hair. 

He had a sharp nose; its bridge reminds me of the spine of some terrible book that was never meant to be taken off the shelf. I have his nose, and it's a big nose, but I don't snore. I had a girl I slept with once tell me most guys snore. She said, "But you don't snore because you got that big nose." 

She said it like it was something to be proud of. If she knew my father, she'd understand that his traits were nothing to take pride in.  

My father's eyes were beady, small, and too close together, just like mine. His eyes were so close that when I was within arms reach and looked at him, they morphed into one huge mean-looking eye. It was the kind of singular eye you'd see on the side of a crow that was perched on a telephone wire high in the sky. We didn't look at each other much.

When I look at myself in the mirror for too long, my eyes also become one eye, and I look like I'm capable of great violence. I've always been curious about what other people see in the mirror and why I can't seem to escape this feeling that my father's alive, somewhere inside of me. 

He was a strong man, and maybe you'll say all sons think their fathers are strong men, and maybe you'll say all sons are scared of their fathers too. Back then, sons got hit when they were acting out of line, and some of us got hit even when we did nothing wrong. Getting hit,

"Just because!" My father would yell.

You learn not to ask "why" over time. You trick yourself into thinking you deserve it. 

I've never hit my son; that's what time does. You can't do that stuff now and get away with it, and I wouldn't want to even if I could. 

My father was an iceberg of a man, and as he lost mass over time, chunks of him melted into me. I'm part him and part me. 

The problem is I seem to favor his part.

The problem is I never figured out my part. 

I'll act like my dad and do things he did, even though I don't want to, even though he's dead, and I haven't seen him in years. I'll try not to think of him, but something will happen like I'll go to the tire shop, and they won't have the brand of tires I want, and I'll pop. My father's still alive, through me. Is that what they mean when they say spirits never die?

My father was the type of man to sit down with an eighteen pack by his foot and drink fourteen beers before standing up to take his first piss. Of course, I like the bottle. When I was sixteen, my dad let me drink for the first time. I drank three Budweisers and threw up; he didn't laugh at me, and he wasn't concerned enough to try to help. He just looked at me like he always looked at me: with disappointment. That's how it was; he was either disappointed or hitting me, and I deserved every second of it. 

Violent men like soft music that doesn't tickle their nerves too much. My father played Sade so loud that I used to sleep in the closet with a pillow over my head. At least that's what I tell myself. 

I'll get drunk now, just like I always do. I'll get drunk, and I'll stare in the rearview at the bridge of my nose and into my beady little eyes, and I'll think of him; I'll think I am him.

***

My father was a butcher who hacked meat to pieces to earn a paycheck. The hamper was full of white smocks that were stained with animal blood. After his work clothes were washed, the places with blood turned a yellowish color that reminded me of puss-stained gauze pads. It smelled like cut open flesh in my house when he came home, and even after all the clothes were cleaned, the hamper still reeked like the inside of a used cast. 

I never had any dreams of what I wanted to be when I grew up. My father never talked to me about ambition, so I never thought a Kelso could be much more than a butcher. I'd roll my eyes if a kid on my baseball team said that he was going to be a famous ballplayer, and if I told my dad later that night what I'd heard a teammate say, he'd tell me the kid was a "dumb bastard." My dad would get along with you if you acted low enough. 

 I never thought about my future at all. It seemed that all there was for me was beatings and eating macaroni and cheese with sausage, pork chops with apple sauce, or some spaghetti ground beef dish. And if I did get beat, I assumed it was because my dad's shop wasn't doing too good, and I reasoned that I was helping him in a way by taking it. 

Then, he got fired, and I realized that my dad never owned the shop where he worked. Still, I couldn't understand how it happened. I wanted to ask how someone good at butchering could get fired from being a butcher, but there was no one to speak to; my mother wasn't around anymore, and I couldn't ask that question to my father because it was a "why."

I watched my father fall, and I think it's my turn now.

"It's a son of a bitch job," he would say, "I've got a son of a bitch job because that's what I am. That's what we are." 

Tearing animals' limbs from their bodies and cutting them into pieces never bothered me, so I took a job at Safeway's meat and seafood department after high school. It took years to get on full-time, but I did it. And I still work at Safeway butchering; after all, that's what I am, but I don't know how much longer I'm going to last there, especially now that I've left my son. 

****

My father left me when I was in eighth grade. There was no warning, and the same day he dropped me off at his sister's was the same day that I learned that he had a sister, that I had an aunt. Her name was Debbie, and she smoked cigarettes inside. 

I remember crying and my dad drinking two Tecate beers on the way there. I remember asking, "Dad, can't I just stay with you?" 

"Can't. I'm moving," He burped, "And it's no good for you." 

"But I don't even know Aunt Debbie."

"What difference does that make," He said, "How much do you really know anyone? How much do you know me?"

Debbie lived in Hayward, which meant I had an even longer bus ride to school. I didn't have my own room; I slept on the pull-out in the living room, the bed's steel frame dug into my back every night, and the smell of tobacco thickened the air. 

My dad looked nervous when he left me, like how a criminal looks nervous in front of a judge. He had dark half-moons under his hopeless eyes, and the last thing he said to me was, "It'll be better this way." 

He put some money in the palm of Debbie's hand, and the last thing she said to him was, "This isn't enough, Jimmy. You better get your shit together." 

I didn't see him for two years after that, but he occasionally called to check on me. I always found the conversation tedious and contrived. I'd rather have seen him in person and worry about being hit than deal with the silence between the words we exchanged. 

I learned that he was living on a 30ft sailboat. I pictured a yacht, and I dreamed about him and I sailing away. But when I saw it my Junior year in high school - at about sixteen - I felt like a dumbfuck for thinking like that; the closest thing I had to a dream.

The sailboat was pathetic. It was the boat form of his ugly bald head. He had no intention of fixing it up or sailing; it was just a place for him to live. It reminded me of a coffin, a floating coffin with a slip at the Emeryville Marina. 

I could be upset with my father for leaving me, but that would be the pot calling the kettle black. When I left my son, he was even younger than I was when my dad left me. But my son has a mother, so he has a better chance at a good life. At least she doesn't smoke in the house. 

I'm not upset with how Debbie raised me. If she hadn't taken me in, I would have been homeless. And although I'm homeless now and am getting by, I don't think it would have been good for me to have been lost that young.

My car is like my dad's boat. I keep it parked in Oakland most of the time because they don't bother you there. But sometimes, when I feel like blowing the money on gas, I'll go to the Emeryville Marina and spend the night in that parking lot, smelling the same air my father breathed. 

*** 

My father was arrested for trying to rob the butcher store he got fired from. He broke in in the middle of the night, expecting no one to be there, then the owner shot him in the shoulder. My son was two years old when Debbie called and told me. 

Part of me would have preferred that Debbie hadn't called to tell me because, at that time, I hadn't been thinking about my father. I'd been in that new-dad mode; I was grateful and hopeful for the life I'd fallen into. 

A black hole swallowed me when Debbie hung up the phone. Instead of riding the highs of my son's youth, I started seeing my father in the mirror and hear his voice all around me. The resentment towards my son pricked at me when he needed care and every time he cried. His mother started telling me I wasn't doing enough, and though it hurt to feel like a disappointment, I welcomed the feeling of familiarity. I walked towards it, into the black hole. 

Debbie shouldn't have called me with updates about my father. If she had just let go of our relationship as I'd hoped she would, maybe I wouldn't have drowned in the sufferings of my past—the darker the water, the clearer the reflection. The blackness of my childhood consumed me like the devil consumes the souls of sinners. I was pulled towards the errors of my father, condemned to repeat them. 

I knew I'd given up when I first drove to the Emeryville Marina. I was still living at my baby's mother's house then. My son was three, and it was Christmas eve. She decorated the apartment with colorful lights and put a five-foot Christmas tree in the corner with a star on top. The sentiment repelled me. I was never loved, so I didn't know how to give it, and when it came my way, I felt smothered by it. 

"Fuck you," I yelled at her when my son was sleeping, "You don't know me." 

"I want to help you," She yelled back, "I want us to be a family!"

I shouted at her before I slammed the door, "I don't know what that is!"

Inside my Toyota Tacoma that first time at the Marina parking lot, I stared at my father's boat and watched it slowly roll with the tide. I was listening to Sade, a habit that I'd picked up a couple of months before. I imagined my father in his shitty boat, listening to the same song and drinking beer. I wondered what it would feel like to abandon my son.  

***

My father died alone on his boat from a heart attack. Debbie told me, through pitiful tears, that it was serval days before anyone actually noticed that he was dead. I wasn't surprised; things usually go that way for lonely sons of bitches who don't have a steady job or anyone who loves them. 

Though she's called me since then - like on the day of the funeral wondering where I was - that was the last time I plan on talking to Debbie. I don't need that connection to my father. So what I lived with her when I was a teenager? I can't consider her family. I don't have family. 

 "I need space" is how I put it to my baby's mother when I left. 

She cried, "Please, don't do this. Please don't leave us. Don't leave him. A boy needs his father." 

"No, he don't," I said. 

"What am I going to tell him," She cried.

I'd already packed all the things I wanted into my truck. I looked at her and said, "Tell him it'll be better this way." 

Then, I left. 

You hear a person's story about how they faced adversity and overcame it to reach new heights; how they were able to raise their children in a way that they were never able to be raised; in a way that gives the kids the best shot at life and all the advantages that they didn't have. We hear about these stories because they're better than the stories like mine—tales of a kid who became lousy just like his father. 

I like to think that my son won't end up like me because I wasn't around to ruin him. That's how I corrected what my father did to me. 

***

My father's legacy is me, but my son's legacy will be something better because I won't be around to destroy him. His mother doesn't get the abandonment, and maybe you don't get it either, but at least now I understand my father's demons and perhaps, how he tried to make them right. 

I don't fear what's coming for me anymore. I know my drinking is going to get to me, make me lose my job, etc. But I don't fear any of that. What I fear is running into my son and having to look him in the eye. There's no good in a man who can't look his son in the eye. 

September 17, 2021 19:17

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1 comment

Jon Casper
20:43 Sep 17, 2021

Wow, this is a heartbreaking story. Touches on some of my own history which makes it especially powerful. This is a great line: "the darker the water, the clearer the reflection." Outstanding!

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