On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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My father was dead when I finally introduced him to my husband of seven years. Dad happened to be in his casket at the time, and through my tears I said, “Bill, this is Dad. Dad, this is Bill.” No, it wasn’t ideal.
“See,” I said to Bill, “I told you I had his hands.” I hadn’t seen those hands for twenty-odd years. They looked like the hands of a meatpacker, because they were. And I had the hands of a meatpacker’s daughter. My mother’s hands were slender and feminine, nothing like mine. Her oval-shaped nails were foreign to me. The hands I’d been hiding inside my shirtsleeves since junior high — because they were as masculine as the hands of the boys I was hiding them from — those were my dad’s.
The funeral would begin soon, but I was reluctant to leave my father’s side. As the room filled with people, it struck me that this was my last chance to be with this man I’d never really known. He’d missed everything that had happened to me since he and my mother had divorced more than twenty-five years earlier. Irrationally I had brought a thick pile of pictures to the funeral to show him: A photo of Oliver, my newborn, purple-red as he greeted the world. Of Elliot, my oldest, bright eyed with his mouth wide open — talking, always talking. Of me rappelling off a cliff with my future husband at Backbone State Park. Of my sisters and me arm in arm, dressed up for some occasion, with huge hair and glossy lips.
I lifted his suit coat and slipped the stack of pictures inside his breast pocket. Then I took a seat in the front row, feeling oddly empty and dizzy. I looked at Dad in his coffin and remembered all the times when I’d felt him watching me from afar and feeling proud of me. For the first time I was aware of how crazy that sounded.
As the funeral ended, the priest intoned, “Creator of all the living, we entrust to Your gentle care all those we love who have gone before us; watch over Your son Richard, Lord.” He raised his hands high in the air as my own son wailed and rooted in my arms, desperate to nurse.
As a young girl I practiced a telepathic system of communication with my dad. It worked much like a phone, but without the actual telephone and without the talking. So, though he was altogether absent from my life, he was wildly present in my imagination: watching, smiling, and applauding my day-to-day existence.
My mother had given me a brief, well-intentioned narrative about him: “Your dad is a wonderful man, and very sensitive.” A wonderful, very sensitive man, I thought, would probably love his daughters from afar if they had a new stepfather, especially if this new stepfather had once been his good friend and neighbor. I imagined that my dad drove by our house now and then to keep an eye on me. I would sit on the front porch and watch the cars pass and look for a familiar face in every window. When a plane would fly overhead, I would pretend it was my father checking to see if I was doing OK. Someday, when he got up the courage, he would have that pilot land on the roof of the laundromat across the street, and he’d say hello.
Years later, after I had my own kids, I thought he might be watching them, too. Had he read Oliver’s birth announcement in a paper, by chance? Doubtful, since he didn’t know where I lived. (Or did he?) And how about the middle-aged man in work clothes at the grocery store who glanced too long at us while I picked through the produce? I imagined he was my dad, and I held an apple up to my son: “See the apple, honey? La manzana, en Español.” I was showing off. The fact that this man couldn’t possibly be my father posed no problem to my magical thinking. Maybe it was a friend of his. The wonderful, sensitive man was getting reports from his friend. Of course.
I wanted my dad to be clever and shy and wounded, so he was. I remember a study from a college psychology class, about how grieving survivors often think the person they’ve lost watches them from above, a guardian angel of sorts. Another study found that “children who experience the death of a parent exhibit problems similar to those of children who lose a parent through divorce.” And then the punch line, buried in a footnote: when one divorced parent is “suddenly and consistently absent” (check), the child is worse off than if the parent had died.
I was about seven when Dad invited my two sisters and me to go on vacation with him. As we waited for him to pick us up, I was petrified. Would I be funny and smart enough? What could I do — a tap dance, jumping jacks, a witty response, a wise observation — to make him like me?
Finally his Ford lumbered into the driveway. I peeked through a crack in the curtains as he made his way to the front door.
He spoke to our mom in a warm voice: “Am I taking these three rascals all the way to Arizona?” He wrote her a check, the first and only, one leg propped on the kitchen chair, checkbook on his knee. He tore the check out — zzzt — and handed it over in silence.
His hair was curly and uncut, a white man’s version of an Afro. A shaggy mustache covered his upper lip, and I stared at it while he spoke. His voice, when he summoned us to his car, was much softer than our stepfather’s.
The inside of his old green Ford had a musty scent, a mixture of dashboard dust and Camel cigarettes. Thirty years later I still remember that smell. We traveled in silence, eventually reaching the steep mountain slopes near Arizona, where his mother lived. And I thought, This is what it feels like to go on vacation with your father.
Our drive began to seem long, and the twisting mountain roads scared me. The metal guardrails didn’t appear to offer much protection from a fall. My lap belt was half stuck in the crease of the seat, along with some loose tobacco the color of my dad’s hair. He wasn’t good at making conversation, which I took personally. As the road began to snake more severely, he slowed down, and other cars overtook us from behind. Going uphill, the poor Ford’s engine sounded as if it didn’t want to be there.
Our dad took us to a zoo, and out for pizza, and to the movies. He was more spectator than participant in everything we did. I felt vaguely like a character in a Dick and Jane book: See the daughter. See her run. She is happy when she runs. See the daughter feed the birds. She laughs when she feeds the birds. But I liked being “the daughter” just fine, and this father smiled often. He watched us watch the monkeys. He watched us eat our pizza. He watched me walk through the parking lot of the pizza place holding my red balloon. When the balloon popped unexpectedly, he dropped to the ground as if someone had shot at him. We laughed, but he didn’t.
That night he drank enough for me to make tall towers with the empty beer cans. We sat side by side in front of the blue glow of the television, watching Apocalypse Now. While my sisters slept, Dad told me about a place called Vietnam. He talked of jungles that were wet and dense, and of horrors I couldn’t fully comprehend. He spoke of children fleeing from helicopters that flew so close to the ground he could see their terrified faces as they ran. He and I did not make eye contact, but I felt special sitting beside him, my knees tucked inside my pajamas, his soft voice telling me grave and important things.
At the end of the week he took us home. The car ride back was a little less quiet, the cigarette smoke a little heavier. A block before we got to our house, he pulled over, put the car in park, and faced us. “Is he treating you good?” he asked, about our stepfather.
Not really, I wanted to say. Yes, our stepfather could be loving, but he also called us names and yelled so loud that spit gathered in the corners of his mouth. And sometimes he pushed us, and other times he used his belt: “Do. You. Under. Stand?” The fit of rage always ended in a hug.
My dad waited for my answer.
“Yes,” I said. “He’s nice.”
My dad promised to call soon, and he waved as he drove away. I didn’t see him again until his funeral.
Though we hadn’t seen or spoken to him in more than twenty years, my sisters and I were our father’s next of kin and therefore charged with settling his estate — which is to say, selling his car and emptying out his Texas apartment.
Were there photos of our long-ago vacation in his closets? Perhaps a withered cactus souvenir? No. There was not a trace that I could see of the ten days we’d spent together. None of the clothes we removed from his drawers looked like the ones he had worn on that trip. There was no home-movie footage of the zoo or our shiny young heads in the Arizona sun; no silent clips of us waving at the camera or clowning in the pool. There was no journal entry detailing the cost of our pizza that night in the mid-1980s, or recounting his parking-lot dive when the red balloon burst. The apartment didn’t even smell familiar.
The cause of death had not been hard to divine: He went to work in the morning, told a coworker he didn’t feel well, turned gray, and died on the way to the emergency room. A heavy smoker, red-meat eater, and alcoholic, he’d had a heart attack at fifty-four, the same age at which his father had died. There was a spatter of dried blood on the floor near the toilet in his bathroom. I don’t know whether it was related to his drinking or was animal blood that he’d carried home on his shoes from the meatpacking plant. His death was unexpected to me, but anyone who knew him should have seen it coming. I’m sure he thought there was still time to reunite with his daughters. How did he imagine such a reunion might look? I can only assume that, like me, he found the idea scary and exciting and totally unrealistic.
My dad’s mother was not much of an informant. Never has been. After I’d moved back to Iowa as an adult, we’d established a routine: Every summer she would visit her sister’s place in Sioux City, right up the road from the house where I’d lived when I was in high school, and my sisters and I would stop by for an hour to see her. She’d bake some brownies and offer us Twin Bing candy bars; we’d each eat more than one. Then she’d stare wistfully at our faces while we pretended not to be uncomfortable. She would tell us over and over about the time my sister, at the age of three, had caught Grandpa eating in the living room, and she’d stomped her foot, pointed, and yelled, “In the kitchen!” Or my infant colic: “Good God, Jenny, the way you cried!”
These were our grandmother’s memories, not ours — select moments she chose. She never told us about the time she had to bail our father out of jail for drunk driving because our mom had refused to do it again. In the midst of the Replaying of the Fond Memories, there was no good opportunity to bring up words like abandonment, deadbeat, or alcoholic. Instead we would joke and chat and ask polite questions. After posing for our yearly picture on the couch, hands full of leftover brownies and candy bars, we’d hug goodbye until the following summer, when we’d relive “In the kitchen!” once more and hear Grandma’s beautiful smoker’s laugh.
Clearing out my dad’s apartment with Grandma felt similar to one of those summer visits — minus the brownies, plus an air of devastation. The moment never felt right to ask difficult questions. Such discussions take time and courage, both of which we lacked. I’d often wondered whether he ever thought of us. Did he acknowledge having three daughters somewhere? My grandmother’s refrain was “Ricky really loved you girls.” I had no good response to this. We stuck to easy topics. Finding golf clubs, we asked, “Was he any good?” In the innocent question was an implication: that our father was a stranger to us. Grandma offered nothing concrete in response. Coming across his newly unwrapped Christmas presents — shirts and khaki pants from Macy’s that she’d bought and sent only a week before — she offered them eagerly to our husbands. The clothes did not fit.
My friend Gina and I have a pact: Should either of us die unexpectedly, the other will retrieve the shoebox of sex toys hidden in the deceased’s closet. Gina, in particular, wants to spare her mom, who doesn’t even believe in French-kissing, from discovering her vibrator.
We all have secrets we want to keep from those who will survive us, maybe because we don’t want to hurt them. Though, let’s face it, what we want to spare them from is probably not what would pain them the most.
I was certainly prepared for the possibility of uncovering secrets when we emptied out my dad’s apartment: Needles. Unpaid bills. Nasty letters. Corpses in freezers. Any of these would be rough discoveries, but what we found is this:
Immediately after I walked into my dad’s apartment for the first time, one of my sisters handed me a framed eight-by-ten picture of the three of us. “Look what he had in his room,” she said. It was the same photo I’d slipped into his pocket at the funeral, only larger.
“How do you know it was his?” I asked skeptically.
“Grandma told me she found it on his TV, in the bedroom.”
I walked to the back of the apartment. The TV was in the center of the wall, facing his bed. Was our grandmother lying to make us feel good? I looked atop the TV and saw a narrow clean strip in the dust where the frame had sat.
“It’s a nice room,” I said.
My sisters smiled, and my grandmother nodded with conviction. The mood was one of tiny celebration: Proof. Sweet, pathetic proof.
He ate lots of mayo, white bread, and Pepsi. No sweets. Not surprisingly he also had a freezer full of red meat — mostly steaks. Also not a shock: the shelves packed with beer.
He had two George Foreman Grills, one badly worn, the other brand-new and still in the box. Something about that made me deeply sad. I pictured him throwing a single burger on the grill night after night, wearing out the grill, and finally buying himself a new one — then dying before he opened the box.
There was a woman at the funeral who didn’t introduce herself or stay to talk. I didn’t realize she was my dad’s girlfriend until a week later, when I overheard my grandmother and my aunt discussing her. This woman was the one who’d sent a plant addressed to “Rick’s family, with condolences”; the one who’d left her pajamas at his apartment. I often wonder what was going through her mind at the funeral. I didn’t see her cry.
My dad did not appear to be a materialistic man, but he had a hell of a TV. The recliner in front of it held a pillow and a blanket, and the TV cabinet housed six long rows of movies, reaching from one wall to the other. Could this have been every war movie ever made? To Hell and Back. The Longest Day. When Trumpets Fade. Saving Private Ryan. We Dive at Dawn. Strike Commando. What was a wonderful, sensitive man doing watching all this violence?
I’d become a pacifist partly in response to my dad’s post-traumatic stress disorder. I took my kids to antiwar rallies in slings and strollers to set an example for them before they could walk, to save them from my father’s fate. Every time I demonstrated, I felt my father was with me in spirit. If we’d lived near each other, I assumed, he would have been there in person. After all, we both knew war turned kind men into distant fathers, didn’t we? When fathers never saw their kids — that was because of war. He was a victim, my dad: a working-class kid, not privileged enough to hide in the bunker of college or law school; a kid who got suckered by a nation willing to send its more disadvantaged citizens to fight. We were a broken family because of my parents’ divorce, and my parents’ divorce was because of alcohol and trauma, and the alcohol and trauma were because of the Marines and Agent Orange and helicopters in Vietnam. He despised all of that, didn’t he?
As I ran my hands over my dad’s vast movie collection, the United States was puffing up its mighty chest, preparing for what would become Operation Iraqi Freedom. When the inevitable bright blasts resounded in the dark Iraqi sky, it would be young men like my dad — doe-eyed, deep-dimpled boys with guns — who tramped off to war. I pictured my father in his recliner, anguished at what he saw on the evening news, turning off the TV because it was too painful to watch.
My grandmother told me no, my dad wasn’t disturbed by the buildup to war. In fact, she said, “Ricky told me if we went to war, he’d go in a second. Except he said they might not want him — he was probably too damn old.”
My dad had a lifelong zeal for baseball, evidenced by a picture of him as a boy in a ball cap, holding his bat and grinning. He had played his entire life, which explained the dirty cleats and uniforms, the weathered mitts and caps we found in his closet. His buddy Lenny told us after the funeral that Dad could have played in the major leagues. He said our dad had been clocked throwing a ninety-mile-per-hour fastball. I had no idea whether this was true or just a well-intentioned brag, but I clung to it as my rightful inheritance, something my boys might receive via their genes.
“Ninety miles per hour — is that fast?” I asked my husband that night in the hotel bed as we were falling asleep. “Is that really good enough for the major leagues?”
He had an old Christmas tree and some ornaments that he never put up. He had his Marine dress blues still hanging in his closet. He had a stepson from another marriage.
I’d known this last part. He’d been married to the boy’s mother for about five years when she’d died in a car accident, pregnant with what would have been my father’s fourth child. After that, the son went to live with his biological father and likely never saw my dad again.
Every picture Dad owned filled one manila envelope, including the few we’d sent to our grandmother over the years, which she had forwarded to him. There were many photos of him that seemed to have been taken at work. One featured an enormous birthday cake with a caricature of my dad on it, his bushy hair exaggerated to cartoonish proportions. In the photo he is standing beside the cake in his white coat and hairnet, his smile radiant, his dimples deep. I like this one because it means his coworkers knew his birthday and went to the trouble of buying a cake to celebrate. And he appeared to love it.
Porn. Conventional. Under the mattress.
Over potato salad and ham the day after the funeral, Lenny reminisced with my grandmother about how “Rick loved to gamble.” She was squirming. I wondered: How did Lenny know my grandmother so well? Lenny and my dad lived in Texas, while she lived in Arizona. I looked back and forth between her and Lenny, confused. Hadn’t she just met him at the funeral, like us?
Then Lenny said something about all the fun they’d had on their road trips to “the Belle.” He teased Grandma about the way she yanked the slots with one arm and smoked with the other. I remembered my grandmother’s summer visits to Iowa, and I asked if he meant the Belle of Sioux City, a riverboat gambling casino I’d tried to sneak into in my teens. “Yes,” Lenny said, enjoying himself, “that Belle.” My dad and my grandmother and Lenny went there for blackjack and bad buffet food every summer while Grandma was in Sioux City.
Every summer? My dad stayed in the same house as my grandmother, a five-minute walk from mine, every summer? Not once did he stop by or call. Not once did I see a Ford with Texas plates drive by my house. (Believe me, I looked.) I wanted to put my fingers in my ears and rock back and forth: Nah, nah, nah, nah. I can’t hear you.
This is the secret my dad should have kept hidden. He should have made a pact with Lenny to stuff this one deep into a closet and never let it see the light of day. Dad was supposed to be toiling in a meatpacking plant in Texas, sad and drunk and lonely, not taking road trips with his buddy — especially not road trips that ended four blocks from my house. Could he possibly have been such a callous man? Was my wonderful, sensitive, funny, wounded, absent father actually a selfish jerk?
I realize now how ludicrous it is that I was so surprised. After all, he’d never shown up for my life. But even as I write this, I try to rationalize: Maybe just being in proximity to my sisters and me was some comfort to him. Maybe he took the trip to Iowa to feel close to us without the risk of rejection, pain, and awkwardness. (Have I mentioned he was sensitive?)
Does it matter, really, what his reasons were? The outcome was always abandonment.
A Thai family at his funeral kept smiling at me: a mother, a father, and a daughter. They approached me after the service with reverence.
“Did you know my dad?” I asked.
“Rick liked our pepper steak,” the man told me.
His daughter explained that my dad drove more than an hour every Friday night, from Childress to Amarillo, to eat in their family-run restaurant. His favorite meal was their pepper steak, and they made piles of it for him. He was more than a customer; he’d become a friend. They’d fed him in their home, compared grandchildren over dinner. He had mentioned my sister’s daughter by name: Mackenzie. These strangers knew my niece’s name.
“Was he happy?” I asked the Thai family. Asking this aloud was the hardest thing I’d done so far, and I felt nauseated waiting for the answer. What if they said he wasn’t? What if they said he was?
The man, woman, and daughter looked at each other questioningly. The father spoke Thai. The daughter translated.
“He was very happy to get a new girlfriend,” she said warmly. “He thought he might have a wife and family sometime.” She leaned toward me and touched my arm. “He felt happy for that. Hoping.”
My sisters and I finished clearing out our dad’s tiny apartment, selling most of the contents to an auction house for two hundred dollars. I took his unopened George Foreman Grill but couldn’t bring myself to use it. One sister took his Marine uniform but couldn’t bring herself to look at it. The other took his battered baseball mitt and put it on her dresser.
Later that year, after the burial, my son Elliot began to talk about the “man in the corner.”
“What man, honey?” I asked. “Where?”
He was in the corner of my bedroom, according to my son, and he had wild hair. Mostly he just smiled and said hello.
“Ah,” I replied. I looked but saw nothing. “He’s probably a nice man,” I said, “just watching to see how we’re doing.”
Jennifer Bowen Hicks