Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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Everyone in the world is Christ and they are all crucified.
— Sherwood Anderson
I knew my mother would find out before fall, when I’d leave home to find a real job. I’d watch her at the sink, her roan hair falling down, her round face red from the steaming dishwater, and I’d think about telling her, but it was impossible to open my mouth. I was sure something just under her pale skin would break if I revealed the truth: that my father was having an affair with a woman who looked like a man.
I’d found out during that summer of 1990 while I worked to pay off my college tuition at the ceiling-tile factory where my dad had worked for thirty years. It was a terrible secret to keep from my mother, but keep it I did — partly out of respect, mostly out of cowardice. It turned out to be a long, hot summer; temperatures rose to over a hundred degrees on the plant floor, where we made acoustic tile for $10.23 an hour. We drank lots of yellow Gatorade, whose color only served to remind me of my spinelessness. Every time I filled a paper cone with the powdery drink and put it to my lips, I heard in my head the Kenny Rogers song “Coward of the County.” The bitter fluid trickled down my throat as my dad and his man-woman talked near the production line.
All that summer I had dreams of killing him: of shoving him from behind, off the loading docks and onto the railroad tracks, the clacking train tossing his body parts down the slope to the smelly irrigation lagoon. To make matters worse, we rode to and from work together and cashed our paychecks together at Smitty’s Bar in Lagro, Indiana, where we drank the coldest beers I’ve ever tasted. I hated him for what he was doing to my mother, but something made me hesitate to take action: I thought he might be the next to die.
One by one, longtime employees at the factory were dying. They let their illness go without treatment, distrusting doctors until it was too late. There were funerals all the time. The men succumbed to cancer mostly, with a few cases of cirrhosis and diabetes thrown in for good measure. At first everyone said the cancers were from cigarettes, but a few men who’d moved up from Appalachia to get the well-paying union jobs — men whose strict religion didn’t allow smoking — also died. Then, that summer, management revealed the cause, which had lain hidden above us. Expert crews started the removal process, pulling down old sheaths of asbestos that had been tucked inside overhead ventilation pipes, pockets of it like gray cotton candy gone to mold. I dreamed of my dad throwing up awful hunks of the killer. I imagined waking him before our four-to-midnight shift and finding his pillow covered with hairy balls of it, like something a cat might spit up, his open mouth desiccated, his lascivious tongue as dried up as autumn ditch grass. But it wasn’t like that. Most of the time, I’d simply show up at his bedside with a tall glass of iced tea, my seething anger hidden, and tell him it was time to get dressed and head to work.
That spring I’d been commuting between Muncie and Lagro, simultaneously working at the factory and taking my last two classes at Ball State. When graduation day came, I attended the noon ceremonies by myself: my mother had to work at Kroger, and my dad logged an extra eight hours overtime on a swing shift. The first in my family to have gone to college, I donned the cap and gown and went through the motions. When it was over, I hurried to get back in time to pick up my mother.
I was free then not to return to the factory; in fact, by coming back, I risked ridicule. The union men loved to tease the few college graduates who remained at the factory until something better came along. I told myself I was just putting away money while I prepared a résumé and shopped for interview clothes, but there was something else, too: something I believed I could do.
It was mid-August when my father and I drove to the Meeks Funeral Home for the viewing of our co-worker Phil. Though I’d worked side by side with Phil for four summers, I hadn’t even known his real name until we were handed small interment cards at the front door. Everyone had called him “M.F.,” short for “motherfucker.” He’d done serious time at Pendleton Prison and liked to take his teeth out during meal breaks; he said they hurt him to chew with. He’d swipe the dentures from his mouth, drop them into his shirt pocket, pop open his silver lunchbox, and gum down his sandwich.
The sweltering parking lot of the funeral home was across the road from an egg-processing plant, where workers held eggs up to bright lights to check for embryos. The acrid sulfur stench drifted over the highway and hung above the steaming pavement where my dad parked the car. The egg plant and the ceiling-tile factory were the only two significant employers in town.
My dad wore a short-sleeved shirt tucked into a pair of gray pleated pants, a shiny black belt strapped around his ample waist. I had on a suit I’d bought on sale at JC Penney, a meager addition to my interview wardrobe. I’d worn the same suit at the graduation ceremony. I’d also purchased a cheap briefcase, a perfect-bound dictionary, and a pen-and-pencil set that gleamed with silver, all in hopes that I’d actually find a job thanks to my Bachelor of Science in psychology. I hadn’t yet realized that I’d have to take a considerable wage cut when I left the factory.
Our car didn’t have air conditioning, and by the time we were walking toward the doors of the funeral home, I could see a large dark spot on my father’s back and could feel the sweat dripping off my nose. I imagined we were leaving a trail of sweat that we could follow back to the car.
Phil had been diagnosed three weeks earlier with advanced cancer. Within a few days he’d become bedridden, then been brought to a run-down hospice, where he’d died with his kids around him.
I loved Phil. He never lied about anything. Once, when a college kid teased him about having been someone’s “wife” in prison, Phil said, “What would you do if someone held a knife to your neck and said, ‘Spit on my dick, or blood on my blade’?” While the college kid walked away ashamed, Phil pulled out a harmonica, plucked his teeth from his mouth, and began to play. “I learned how to do this in there, though,” he said to the rest of us, a proud, toothless grin, as pure as a baby’s, stretched across his face.
As my dad signed us in at the little podium, writing our names in a spiral notebook with a ballpoint pen tied to it, I spotted a circle of guys from the factory, members of Union Local 563, shirts damp, hands shoved in pants pockets, somber but fiery-eyed from shots of schnapps in the parking lot. They nodded at us, and one man, Bob, giggled and made a comment under his breath to the others. Bob’s mouth always got him into fights.
I’d tried to ignore the rumors about my father’s affair, but it wasn’t easy; in fact, it was the talk of the factory, and I didn’t know how to handle it. That summer I drank more than I ever had at college, and now, as my dad marched us toward the front of the funeral home to stare down at Phil in his affordable casket, I longed for a bottle.
Cold air from a large vent hit my damp back and gave me the chills. I felt utterly out of place in my interview suit. Phil’s family had dressed him in a blue work shirt buttoned to his chin, no tie. His thick hair, brushed back, shone under the lights. He didn’t look “eaten up” with the cancer, as the guys had all said at the factory during lunch breaks. Phil looked as if he were napping during downtime, when the line would jam and we’d all grab a few winks before it roared back to life.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve cried freely and without much provocation: when baby pigs died on the farm, when a kid at school would sock me in the shoulder, when my first girlfriend dumped me. I liked crying; it made me feel better, released some grim, throttling tension in my stomach. But my dad hated it. I’d never seen him cry, not once, not even a misty tearing-up. That summer, we attended no fewer than ten funerals together, and he always acted the stable foreman, capable of fixing any problem, coolheaded and unemotional. Meanwhile I did everything I could to stifle my tears, including a lip-puckering technique that made me appear more crotchety than sad. Right then, next to Phil’s simple wooden casket, I wanted more than anything else for my dad to break down and lose it, to fill his shirt pockets with tears. But of course he didn’t. He only bowed in the direction of Phil’s widow, handed Phil’s son a check in an envelope, then turned to walk back up the aisle toward the exit. I walked behind him, wiping my tears on my suit-jacket sleeves like a dumbass.
In the parking lot the stifling heat hit us like a wall of space heaters in our faces. The sun made everything silver and painfully bright. I intentionally lagged behind my father to keep him from seeing me try to swallow the king-sized lump in my throat. As I stopped and pretended to tie my shoe, Bob, with the big mouth, emerged from the funeral parlor alone. He came up next to me sporting a broad, saturnine expression, towering over my stooping figure such that he blocked the sun. Then he broke into a laugh, his breath reeking of peppermint liquor, and said, “You like your new stepmommy, Crandell?” (Older men at the factory interacted with us college kids in one of two modes: either cruelly taunting us about everything from girlfriends to the length of our hair, or heartily encouraging us to finish our degree and not end up becoming a “lifer” — a word they spit out as if it were a hunk of asbestos.) I looked up at the large shadow, which wheezed out another round of laughter. “Or should I say ‘stepdyke’?”
I stood from my crouch but said nothing. Bob was not a bad person — frustrated and tired, to be sure, but not cruel by nature. For him, things like my dad’s affair were swigs of life to be savored at length, lest he go for months without another drink to relieve the boredom of work at the factory. My dad was standing by the car, beckoning me with his hairy forearm to get a move on; from that distance, he was a blurry figure, a heat-wave mirage. As I walked away, I heard Bob spit a ball of phlegm onto the sizzling ground, and then his dress shoes tapping the pavement.
When I was a child, my mother would let me ride with her to deliver my father’s dinner to the factory. They were in love then, or so it seemed. She’d pack his chicken and dumplings in a warm crockpot, slip on a pair of heels, and spray her neck with hyacinth perfume. At the factory, I’d marvel at how big the men seemed, their shirt sleeves twitching with every bend of their strong arms. While my mother and father talked about the farm, I’d breathe in the smell of Salem Lights and sit on the knee of an enormous mute named Doadie. His hands were heavy and sandpapery, as hot as the factory air, and he’d cradle my tiny hand in his, fiddling with the small nails, his massive thigh like a tree trunk under my butt. At the factory, to hold another man’s son imparted a godfather-like quality, whereas to put your own son on your lap would betray weakness, a desire to soften the boy, make him unfit for the calloused world he would soon inhabit. Daddies didn’t hold their boys, but Doadie held me, and I relished every moment: his gentle, wordless examination of my cuticles; his approving smile in my father’s direction; and his velvet pat on my rear as I crawled down.
By the time I came to work at the factory, Doadie had been taken by the cancer and whisked up into the sooty sky above the unregulated smokestacks.
One night at work, near the very spot where I’d sat on Doadie’s lap, I was assigned the job of toting loose coke rock in a wheelbarrow from a large pile inside to a bare spot on the loading dock. The soot clung to the hair on my arms, but once outside, where a rare breeze wafted off the highway, I felt glad to be working off the line. It had been just two days since Phil’s funeral, and my father and I had barely spoken on the hot car rides to and from the factory. In the afternoons I’d been letting him sleep until it was too late for him to gussy himself up, shaving and pressing his bluejeans.
By a quarter to midnight, almost quitting time, I’d dumped hundreds of wheelbarrow loads, and my forearms ached and burned. As I emptied yet another load, I caught a glimpse of them next to an old rusty bin pocked with holes and creaking in the wind: my father and the woman — her name was Tina. They were facing one another, their shoulders straight, looking, in the swirl of soot and dust, like two gunslingers sizing each other up before a showdown. Tina was thin and bowlegged, with a hint of a mustache, and she always wore a flannel shirt, summer and winter, and a cap with a heavy-equipment logo on the front.
I slipped behind a listing utility pole. For a moment, it looked as though my father and Tina might simply shake hands, but as the wind grew stronger and a few lonesome drops of rain pelted the sandy lot, he leaned in and kissed her. It was just a quick peck on the lips, but it felt as if someone had thrown lye in my eyes. Somewhere in the distance, a dog howled. The scene before me turned as gray as the poisonous asbestos that had hidden in the factory’s rafters like a nest of asps, waiting to strike. My father kissed Tina once more, and before I could stop myself, I plucked a shard of coke from the ground and hurled the rough black stone in their direction. As I darted back inside the factory, my dad bellowed, “What the hell?” I paused at the door and heard a much worse sound: the two of them giggling, just like my dad and mom had done late on Christmas Eve when they were downstairs trying to figure out how to assemble a toy from Kmart. Their laughter had sounded like rain from heaven to me then, but now, as I stood at the factory door, my dad and his mistress sounded like hyenas with forked tongues.
© Sara Goldenthal
The next morning, my mother was up early as usual, spinning loads of wash, wiping down the kitchen, and preparing for her shift at Kroger, where she supervised three other women in the deli. I’d been avoiding her for nearly a month, and she knew it. Sometimes, when Dad and I had the evening off, I’d hear her on the phone with women from town, who were calling to let her know about Tina and my dad. My father used all his powers of persuasion to try to convince my mother she needn’t worry about such “gossipy old hags,” but my mother was not taken in. My dad looked only more foolish when he offered to drive us all to Dairy Queen for a treat: a pathetic diversion. Still, more than once the three of us ended up sitting silently in the sticky booth, swiping chocolate-dipped cones across our tongues, then driving home with the windows down as I tried my best to wish it all away.
When my mother and I ran into each other in the hallway, it was as if we’d stumbled upon one of the ghosts people swore drifted around the attic of our rented farmhouse. I’d work my way around her as if sidestepping a soupy cow pie, and she’d smile mildly and bow her head, hiding her sloe-eyed face. That look of hers will haunt me for all time, a painful reminder of how I failed her that summer. My silence hurt her as much as my father’s infidelity; I could see it in her ashamed glances and quiet movements through the house.
“Doug?” she said as I sat at the kitchen table, hung over from a night at Smitty’s Bar, where my dad and I had drunk six beers apiece, with him watching the door the whole time, hoping Tina would be brave enough to show her face. “Your mother’s going to work now. Do you want her to bring home some of that sliced ham you like?”
She’d started talking about herself in the third person shortly after her botched hysterectomy many years earlier. Without the benefit of hormone-replacement therapy and under the care of a ruthless male doctor, she’d slipped into a clinical depression. Ever since, she’d been more comfortable referring to herself in this detached way. I was eight when she started doing it, and at first I’d thought that maybe she was trying to tell me she wasn’t my real mother, but was merely in contact with my mom and providing me with updates about her health and well-being: “Your mother’s so tired.” “Your mother’s not feeling well today.” Soon, though, I grew accustomed to the third person, and I credit her with teaching me how to use it to write short stories in my sixth-grade English class.
Now she stood at the front door, waiting for my answer, her worn old purse draped over one shoulder, the rubber-soled shoes I’d bought her the year before, at the start of her new job, laced tightly on her feet, bright white socks contrasted against blue pants.
I hunched over the table, my head and neck on fire with shame and booze, muscles sore from loading and unloading the wheelbarrow. I could hear her standing at the door, could hear how she made no sound whatsoever: the loudest nothingness my ears had ever heard. I dropped my spoon into the empty coffee mug, just to make that silence go away, then forced myself to turn toward her. But she was already gone, the fluttering of the sheer curtains on the door the only indicator that she’d been there at all.
I felt the pounding in my head begin to move downward, trying to escape my body. In the back of the house, my father snored in their bedroom, a croaking sound that made me simultaneously worry about him and wish he’d swallow his tongue and die. I stumbled to the sink and wet my face; the smell of my mother’s bleach and dish soap hung around the counter.
The phone rang, and I charged it, thinking it was one of the snoopy old ladies from Lagro calling again to harass my poor mother. I jerked the receiver off the hook. For a minute, no one spoke on the other end. Then a voice crackled over the poor connection:
“This is Don Hunt from the union. Your dad home?”
“He’s asleep,” I said, my insides numb.
“Well, I guess you can tell him: They just diagnosed Bob with the cancer. It’s all over his insides. He’s in Parkview, but they’re only giving him a few months. He won’t be back to work.”
I didn’t respond, and the phone went dead. My father’s snoring had ratcheted up, sputtering when he exhaled, like some awful internal-combustion engine about to blow.
So Bob had it now. Except for the incident in the parking lot at Phil’s funeral, Bob had been kind to me. Once, he and I had talked on the docks, a train whizzing past, crickets ticking away, a pale full moon lighting the humid night. He’d said that he’d love for one of his girls to end up with a guy like me — despite my crooked teeth and skinny legs. And I held that conversation in my mind as I walked to my father’s bedroom door. Bob was going to die now, too, and I’d had enough. Something felt stuck in my throat, as if, like a chicken, I’d swallowed bits of stone and sand to coax down the awful news. The men had all slipped into death the same way over the summer: diagnosed with barely a few weeks in which to make amends, patch things up with their grown kids, ask forgiveness from the wives on whom they’d cheated. And then they’d become elongated ghosts in hospital beds, faces sunken, skin as yellow as the watered-down Gatorade we drank, dying painfully each day — until their union buddies showed up at the funeral home to bury one more middle-aged man, then stood in a knot afterward, never saying what they were really thinking: Am I next?
I stalked my father as he slept. His full cheeks glowed while he twitched and snorted. I crept around the room, leaning toward his bed, inspecting his body, no longer trusting my senses. I wanted to see if I could detect in him any signs of the killer that was taking the lives of so many members of Local 563. I tracked his scent — Stetson cologne and mouthwash — skulking along the perimeter of the bed, the sunlight peeking through the curtains and falling at his feet. He mumbled something and rolled over, and for a brief moment I thought I’d heard him say he was sorry. I stood stone-still and listened again, but the only sound was his scratchy breathing. We were due at work in a few hours. I knew I wouldn’t go. I paced the shag carpet and watched him as if he were an ill child. I felt my stomach twist with worry over his possible demise. All that summer, I’d thought I was watching my father for signs of the cancer — and I was — but I was also watching him for traces of guilt or remorse or regret. I walked to the door and then turned back, to give him one last chance to confess in his sleep. He curled up soundlessly, all of a sudden breathing like an angel.
I got a lift into town from a fellow college kid, who dropped me off in front of Kroger. I didn’t know where to put my suitcase, which held my interview suit, my dictionary, and my briefcase. I settled on tucking it out of sight by the vending machines, then proceeded inside through the automatic doors. The supermarket air smelled like warm bread. My mother saw me before I saw her, my head twisting like an owl’s, searching for her. She stood behind the counter in her dark blue uniform and silly bow tie. She waved, and a smile creased her face, then disappeared as she beckoned me over. Something thickened in the back of my mouth, and I felt feverish.
A sign on the counter read: try our new honey-roasted hams! My mother tapped her wristwatch as if she’d been expecting me and said, “My break’s right now.” I’d been to see her at the store a few times in the previous year, but not at all that summer. We walked down a sticky hallway to a drab break room filled with round tables and even stickier chairs, and I wondered how my father could ever have found it within himself to harm her.
We sat down at a table, but I was unable to look her in the eye. It was as if my neck were immobilized by metal rods. I’d been a coward all summer, and now, when I’d planned to be strong for her, all that would come out of me were snotty, gasping sobs. My mother got up from her chair and came around to me. I stood, and we hugged tightly, the smell of her hair spray thick in my face as I stooped to hold her; she seemed smaller than ever. I wish I could say I confessed that I knew about the thing my dad was doing — but I can’t. She held me until I regained control over myself. Then I kissed her forehead.
“My suitcase is outside,” I said.
“You’d better get going, then,” she said in a tremulous voice. “Your mother’s got to get back, too.” She hugged me again and whispered in my ear, “Be careful, baby. Write me with your pretty words.”
I walked out the door and back down the hallway, the soles of my shoes sticking to the grimy linoleum. I’d failed her once more.
Just a few weeks before Christmas, after I’d found a job in Indianapolis, I got a call from my pastor. He told me my father and Tina had been caught sitting in a dump truck outside the factory while they were still on the clock, a six-pack of beer between them on the cold seat. To keep his job, my father had to attend a thirty-day substance-abuse program at the county hospital. He had asked for me to come home, the pastor said.
Dad and I hadn’t spoken since I’d left on a Greyhound bus, and I wasn’t certain why he’d want to see me now, when he was in the twelve-step program. I wouldn’t have made the trip, but my mother asked me to come, too. She said on the phone, “Come if you can. It might help you both.”
So I drove two hours north and parked in the visitors’ lot behind the hospital. It was ten degrees, and the forecast called for eleven inches of snow by supper time. I waited for Dad’s counselor to emerge from his cubicle office, then spent several minutes talking with him about the finer points of my father’s “addiction.” I had trouble with the term, but didn’t say so.
“He’s a complex man, your dad,” the counselor said to me, his thin mustache twitching. “Been drinking heavily in secret for years.” He paused only briefly before going on. “His addiction is substantial.” Then he returned to his office to confer with my dad. The snow was already beginning to fall outside when the counselor came back. “I forgot to tell you,” he said. “He may only have visitors in peer group.” He motioned for me to follow him through the security door.
Inside the cold cinder-block room, chairs were set up in a circle. I sat down, not knowing what to expect. A dozen or so other family members of those sentenced to treatment sat around the room. My mother couldn’t come; she had been promoted at Kroger and was in mandatory supervisor training. I had little time to think about her absence, however, as another door opened in the rear of the room and a line of men and women wearing robes and pajamas filed in.
My father was in the middle of the line, looking completely out of place without his usual factory garb of pressed Dickies and starched flannel shirt. His bald head, typically covered with a baseball cap, looked exposed and vulnerable. He took his seat, smiled gently at me, and adjusted his pale blue robe. On his feet he wore tube socks and a pair of black slippers. The look on his face was one I didn’t recall ever having seen on him before: resignation. Before us, on an ocher wall, an enormous chart of the twelve steps hung like the Commandments.
“Who’d like to start?” asked a counselor.
My father’s hand shot up. “That’d be me,” he said confidently. He dragged his chair to the center of the circle, sat down not ten feet from me, and said, “My name’s Dan Crandell, and I’m an alcoholic.”
In unison, the crowd said blandly, “Welcome, Dan.”
He wasted no time. “My son’s here,” he began, “and I want to apologize to him.” His hands shook as he removed his glasses to wipe tears from his eyes. At that moment, I hated him more than ever: I hated him for having made me worry that he’d die all summer long; I hated him for finally letting me see him cry; and I hated him for starting down the long road toward becoming a better man.
When it was my turn to speak, I was shocked at how easily I told him exactly what I felt. I must have said I hated him a hundred times before it was over. For once in my life, I didn’t have to sputter through dammed-up emotion or choke down tears. In a room filled with complete strangers, I let my father have it.
When it was over, I got to sit with him for five minutes. “You did a good job, son,” he said. “I deserved that.” Then he laughed. “But don’t feel bad; yours was nothing compared to what your mother said.”
Your mother. The words comforted me, and I wanted to see her right then. I needed to cry with my mother. That night I’d stay with her while the snow piled up outside and the man who’d hurt her slept where he belonged: locked away with the truth and his newfound tears.