We’re not fifteen minutes into my visit, and my father’s already embarrassing me.
“Hello there, Kenny Rogers,” he says to the maitre d’; then he turns to my stepmother and me and jerks a thumb at the man as if he were made of wax. “Don’t he look like Kenny Rogers?” My father lets out a horse laugh and pokes the maitre d’ in the ribs.
Kenny Rogers touches his gray beard and tries to smile.
“Where’s the old lady that’s always here?” my father asks.
“Mama Nicoletti?” the maitre d’ says, bowing his blow-dried head. “She died.”
“Oh, dear,” my stepmother whispers.
“Yes,” the maitre d’ says solemnly, “it was very sudden.” He continues the story as he seats us at our table. “Pneumonia. The hospital sent her home, but it spread to her other lung, and she died in the night.”
“I’ll have an iced tea with Sweet’N Low,” my father says.
The maitre d’ looks confused. I know the look: he’s trying to figure out if my father’s hard of hearing or just insane.
“We all loved Mama very much,” the maitre d’ tries again.
“And bring us some of that bread, too,” my father says to his menu.
The maitre d’s mouth hangs open. He turns and walks away.
“I guess we’ll just have water,” I say to my father.
“Oh,” he says, realizing his rudeness. “Waiter!” he yells across the room, snapping his fingers. “Waiter! They want something to drink, too!”
My stepmother and I sink in our seats. “It can wait, Dad,” I say through gritted teeth. I’m forty-eight, a father of two, and I still feel like a fourteen-year-old whenever my father and I are together.
“Best Eye-talian food in Palm Springs,” my father says to me, and he looks at his wife. That’s her cue to talk.
“Yes,” she says, “we love this place.”
It’s a little joint like all the other little joints he takes me to when I visit, a box wedged between other boxes in a strip mall, one of many strip malls that line boulevards named after Gerald Ford, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Sonny Bono. The decor is nondescript: brown tablecloths, white walls. We hear people laughing in a banquet room off to one side. A leather-clad biker couple sits a few tables to our left. The other tables are empty. The audience for my father’s performance is, thankfully, limited.
When Kenny Rogers brings the bread, my father asks, “Is that a Kiwanis Club meeting over there?” He means the group in the banquet room. My father never drank when I was a boy, but now he gets drunk at clubs: Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions — any kind of civic organization that will fill his cup with what he calls “good Christian fellowship.” They’re also customers for his “motivational talks,” thirty-minute routines designed to remind businessmen that “we’re all winners”; to deliver the ABC’s of success — “Attitude. Belief. Concept. Determination. Enthusiasm” — mixed with a dash of God and patriotism. I went to one once, and he was actually pretty convincing. I didn’t feel like a winner, but I was proud to see my father engaged in his favorite pastime: talking about himself.
Kenny says it’s a Porsche-owner’s club. My father looks disappointed. He knows nothing about cars (other than that they’re good for displaying magnetic flags and ribbons that “Support Our Troops”) and therefore can’t crash their party with a joke. So he turns to the bikers.
“How are you all doing tonight?” he shouts.
The woman looks a little startled. The man looks surly.
“I’ll be eighty-five years old this April,” he tells them.
They nod. I close my eyes and lower my head.
My father’s always been a salesman. He sold salvation as a married preacher, dry burritos as a divorced lunch-truck driver, and security as an insurance representative. Now it’s like Tourette’s: he can’t stop selling himself to total strangers. His age is his final calling card to the world. “Yep, eighty-five this April,” he repeats for the bikers, dropping in his Tennessee Ernie Ford impression, “the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”
The bikers do what most people do: mumble their congratulations. I withdraw and then feel guilty for withdrawing. I should be able to handle this, but his public shenanigans are just as embarrassing to me now as they were when I was a kid. “Corn pone,” my mother called it after the divorce. I’ll never forget her eye-rolling asides — as if to say, “What a phony!” — whenever my father offered up one of his Hee-Haw handshakes or big Baptist backslaps to a member of the flock at the grocery store. I’d seen some of these same men laugh behind his back. They’d whisper and stare at his undershirt and fleshy arms and grass-stained Saturday shorts. And I’d feel ashamed.
My father always encouraged me, told me, “Just do the best you can.” But then he’d beat me with his belt when I’d done wrong — this from a man who preached the love of Christ from the pulpit every sleepy Sunday morning. I’m not saying I didn’t deserve most of the beatings, but it sent a mixed message — not to mention created a Christian guilt complex that drove me to drink for twenty-five years. I felt guilty because, after my mother left, my father raised my brother and me on his own. He put me through school, suffered, sacrificed, and advised me on every professional move I’ve ever made — and still I’m embarrassed by him whenever we’re in public.
I used to think my father’s act was just overcompensation for his own childhood; a motherless Tennessee hillbilly, he was saved by the draft in the 1940s, and later by God and the GOP. But this thought never made me feel any better. Now he’s just an old man who’s proud to be alive. And he should be. He’s survived the Great Depression, World War II, heart fibrillations, cornea transplants, prostate cancer, and shooting himself in the foot.
“Oh, Lordy,” he says with a sheepish laugh whenever I bring that last bit up. Though not a card-carrying NRA member, my paranoid father used to pack a pistol “just in case.” One evening, preparing to watch his favorite TV show, Walker, Texas Ranger, my father lay back in his recliner with a glass of milk and forgot about the firearm in his pocket — until it discharged. The bullet blew a hole in his pants, pierced his right foot, shoe and all, and lodged in the living-room wall just below a portrait of Jesus. A neighbor called the cops, who took the gun from him. He keeps the bullet-scarred Florsheim as a souvenir.
Another time he fell into a sand trap on a golf course and broke his ankle in seven places. His ability to survive such stunts keeps me from seriously considering his mortality. I don’t want to think about the fact that he will die soon, and about how I’ll fall apart when he does. I love him. I know he’s an easy mark, but he’s my father. He yelled too loud at my Little League games, but he taught me how to swing a bat. He played the clown at all my school carnivals, and the laughs were all genuine. Introducing him to a girlfriend after I’d grown up, I’d wait for him to say something dumb, but he was always charming, always endearing to everyone, with the exception of his ungrateful son. I stew over the petty details, mock him in my mind, make him into a cartoon character that never, ever dies.
“This isn’t what I ordered!” my father says to Kenny, and he makes that face, the face I hate: a pissed-off, sour expression of irritation, as if it were his right as an octogenarian to be an asshole.
“You ordered fettuccini Alfredo,” Kenny says.
“Where’s the shrimp?” my father demands. “I want shrimp with it.”
“I don’t think you specified shrimp, Dad,” I say.
“Well, that’s how I got it last time,” he says, and he pushes the plate away, disgusted.
Kenny takes the plate, and my father sits there chewing his bread, a Little Lord Fauntleroy on blood thinners, a big eighty-four-year-old baby who talks with his mouth full, who yawns and slurps and burps from the bottom of his self-absorbed gut.
“Jeez, Dad,” I say when he belches.
“I like to belch,” he says.
I look at my stepmother, who shrugs and sighs. I didn’t smell the Jack Daniels on her breath until now. She likes her predinner drinks, and I can certainly understand why. She’s a Southern belle whose graciousness wilts under my father’s hot air. And although they’ve been married only a few years, she’s found a way to quietly fortify herself, usually on the rocks.
My father puts a cellphone to his ear.
“He forgot to pay the water bill,” my stepmother whispers.
“I’m trying to find out where I’m supposed to go to pay it!” he snarls at her. His face sours even more as he stabs at the phone. “Aw, it’s all that crap about picking Spanish or English!”
Here it comes, I think.
“Why do we have to put up with this Spanish crap when it’s OUR COUNTRY, DAMN IT? Newt Gingrich said on FOX the other night that whoever makes illegal immigration his big issue, he’ll get the GOP nomination.”
“What’s that got to do with the water bill?” I ask, getting heated up. “And it’s a shame Newt left his wife for that younger woman,” I add, “especially when she was sick with cancer.”
“Ha!” my stepmother blurts, quickly covering her mouth.
“I guess she forgot to sign Newt’s Contract with America,” I say.
My father stares my stepmother down, then me, then slowly smiles. “Well, I didn’t say he doesn’t have a little baggage.”
I see my remark was a low blow, and I feel bad again. My father is ready to debate politics, but I won’t play anymore — not because I think he’s a conservative windbag, which I do, but because it always comes back to the Big One, and how he fought in the back of a B-17, and the way things used to be, and, inevitably, his eighty-four years on planet Earth.
“We lost three hundred thousand in World War II,” he says, apropos of nothing, “and the media keeps harping about the two thousand dead in Iraq.”
I see Kenny Rogers coming with his food.
“It’s called sacrificing for your country,” my father says.
“And for oil.” I can’t help myself.
The sour face comes back when my father sees the fettuccini Alfredo.
“With shrimp,” Kenny Rogers assures my father, who peers at it suspiciously while I blow on my lasagna and my stepmother sips her third red wine.
My father starts talking again, but I’ve stopped listening. I know it doesn’t matter. One night on my last visit, he started reciting all of his favorite restaurants. I fell asleep, and when I woke up, he was still going down the list.
Now my father’s asking me a question.
“I said, how does your boy like his school?”
“Oh,” I say, “he likes it fine. It’s a church school, but they don’t go into any of that.”
“But they don’t teach the bad stuff either, do they?”
“Like what? Satan?”
“Naw,” my father says, “like sex education.”
“Dad, I’ve never heard of any school teaching sex education to four-year-olds.”
“Don’t tell me that. I see it on TV all the time. There’s people hiring attorneys to get it stopped!”
“Well, they’re not teaching sex education at your grandson’s school.”
“Good. Kids that age don’t need to know how to unroll a condom and all that stuff they’re teaching them.”
This man didn’t give me the “talk” until I was fifteen, and he used terms like “shooting beaver” and “getting hot pants.” I had no idea what he was talking about. I let the subject drop now because there’s a slight possibility that somewhere in the thigh-high stack of newspapers he keeps at home, there’s an article about a renegade preschool with sex ed on the curriculum. He’s incredibly well read when it comes to crumbling family values. It’s impressive, in a Rain Man sort of way.
My father belches again to announce that he’s done.
“Too much shrimp,” he says.
Kenny comes over and asks if my father enjoyed his meal. My father scowls, but it’s an act this time, a little post-dinner shtick I’ve seen a thousand times.
“It was awful,” my father says.
Kenny looks at my father’s empty plate and doesn’t know what to say. My father waits. Kenny’s face twitches. The drama builds.
“Just awful,” my father repeats before breaking into a smile. “AWFUL GOOD!”
It’s as if Kenny has just passed the bar exam. He looks that relieved.
“Whatever happened to all those rotary-chicken places?” my father asks. Kenny waits for another punch line, but it’s not a joke this time, just another non sequitur. “You know,” my father twirls a finger, “those Kenny Rogers places where the chicken spun around.”
“I don’t know,” Kenny says, taking our plates.
“Now that was good chicken,” my father reminisces and wipes his mouth. No one says anything, so he begins to tell a joke. “A man moves to California from back east.” He still has a spot of Alfredo sauce on his chin. “The man likes to jog, so he asks his new neighbor when’s a good time to go jogging in California.”
Kenny brings the check, puts it down with three peppermints, bows, and leaves. My father ignores him.
“The neighbor says Sunday morning’s the best time to jog: The Protestants are all in church. The Catholics are all at Mass. And the Jews are all in Palm Springs.”
“Oh, this is funny,” my stepmother says.
“Be quiet!” my father barks. While he recovers from the interruption, he unwraps a peppermint and pops it into his mouth. “So the man goes jogging on Sunday morning” — my father pauses, sucking on the peppermint — “AND GETS HIT BY A CAR FULL OF SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTISTS ON THEIR WAY TO WORK!”
Although I usually hate his jokes, I laugh at this one. We’re all laughing until I notice my father’s expression has frozen. His mouth is puckered. His eyes are big. Both hands are at his throat.
“Dad?” I yell, pins of adrenaline pricking my palms. “Dad?”
My father unfreezes, puts his head back, and gurgles.
“Honey?” my stepmother says softly.
“UHHHHCCHH!“ My father tries to clear his throat. “UHHHHCCCHHH!” He smacks his lips, swallows hard, and swallows again. “The candy’s stuck,” he croaks. “It won’t go down.”
“Can you breathe?” my stepmother asks.
“OF COURSE I CAN BREATHE!” he shouts.
“Oh,” my stepmother says.
“AW-HOOAAA,” my father tries again, full force. “AW-HOOAAAAAA!”
A laugh comes from the banquet room.
My father’s noises grow guttural. “ACH-GHUU!” He stops and shakes his head. “I can’t get it to go down.” He’s almost pleading now.
“Stand up,” I tell him.
I don’t know Heimlich from Himmler, but someone’s got to do something. I try not to panic, and also not to laugh, as I stand behind my father, put my arms around his belly, and squeeze, looking like I’m humping his ass. The entire kitchen staff is at the front counter. The Porsche club is peeking around the corner. My father finally has his audience.
“Maybe another piece of bread would help it go down,” Kenny says half-heartedly.
“Bread expands,” the biker lady says. “He’ll choke.”
“Don’t do it,” the biker man says to his woman, but she gets up anyway.
“I’m a nurse,” she tells my father. “Just relax.”
She takes my place, and I watch, wondering if my father has ever been in this particular position with a woman before. But all her maneuvering goes unrewarded. The peppermint does not pop out.
“ACH-GHUUUAH!” my father chokes. He looks accusingly at the biker nurse, as if she doesn’t know what she’s doing. “The other lady just put her fingers on my chest, and it came right out,” he whines.
“This happened before?” I ask.
“Last month,” my stepmother says, sipping her wine. “He was telling a joke, just like now.”
“IT WAS A DIFFERENT JOKE!” my father coughs.
We sit him down again, and the nurse stands beside my father, rubbing his shoulder.
“It’s going to go down, isn’t it?” My father looks to her for reassurance, and for a second I glimpse his fear of being old and helpless, all the insecurity he covers up with his bullshit and belligerence and badgering, all the uncertainty of dying exposed by a single peppermint candy the size of a quarter.
Then he turns to me, almost apologetically, as if this is some kind of dress rehearsal for his parting, and he’s sad that I have to see it. “I’m sorry, son,” he whispers.
And I’m sorry, too. Sorry for not listening. Sorry for not appreciating. Sorry for not giving my father the only thing he ever really wanted from me. Respect.
Ten long minutes later, my father has stopped coughing but can still feel the peppermint stuck in his throat, and the biker man is drumming his ringed fingers impatiently on a mug.
“Why don’t you stop by the emergency room before you go home,” the nurse says to my father, patting his hand, “just to make sure.”
I pay up, and pay the biker couple’s check, too.
“I’m sorry about Mama Nicoletti,” my father tells Kenny Rogers at the door, shaking his hand with genuine affection. “She was a real nice lady. I’ll pray for her family tonight.”
And my heart melts, just like the peppermint on our way home.