My dad was a priest. Not some nice-guy-with-a-mustache-and-a-family minister—he was a full on ordained Jesuit priest. He spoke Latin.
My dad had been a priest before he met my mother (a nun, which is a story for another day), and I wore it like the Popes wore the tiara. I trotted that little fact out any time a religious disagreement came up among the kids I knew, which, oddly, was not uncommon. I felt deeply knowledgeable about the Church. Bonafide.
We had a picture of my dad wearing his roman collar. He looked serious and young and a little holy. I wanted that look. I wanted to stare dreamily and handsomely into the distance and feel whatever deep stuff he was feeling.
We also had a trophy my dad had been given in high school for making the semi-finals of the St. Louis Golden Gloves boxing tournament. The trophy gleamed in my mind when I wasn’t caressing it, the brassy (ahem: gold) figure of a boxer with jab extended, head tucked in a slight crouch. I pictured my dad moving like that, too, in a smoky-dim ring and imagined I had inherited some slickness with my fists, some bob and weave. I lost a few fights before I recognized sons don’t inherit everything.
Luckily, there was more to inherit than spirituality and a right cross. But these symbols do represent the essential conflict and duality of fatherhood—the intense desire to connect with our children and the impulse to board the first moving vehicle away from them. The gentle protector and the wolf. Teacher, warrior. I wondered about the far-away look my dad couldn’t always shake from his eyes. He loved me, and I knew it, but he was sometimes unreachable. He would smile at a story of mine, while his eyes did not. He drove his boy safely down a frozen midwestern street to symphony practice, his eyes on foreign territories, fresh kill.
“The Barren Futon,” a short story by Liz Enright, presents us with a good-for-nothing sort of father who lurks around the edges of the story, as is his sort’s tendency. His daughter copes with her father’s absence and actions with dignity and some help from her grandmother. Situational humor and unusually formal dialogue effectively buffer the reader from the story’s sadness, just as the daughter of a way-ward father might buffer her own feelings. A neighborhood boy who has been digging a hole in hopes of winning a pair of panties says to the girl, “We are prepared to fight for your honor, to the death if this particular situation calls for it. We are valiant young men who keep their promises.” If only every father did.
Some of the inherent distance and intimacy of the father-son relationship propels “Balloon,” Fyan Farker’s flash story. In a very short space, “Balloon” tells two, almost three stories, effortlessly flicking out just the right resonant details of a hot air balloon ride: “We passed through the morning’s lone cloud, a big cumulus explosion. Inside all I could see was Dad, half-erased, the background cotton-wrapped around his shoulders.” To connect with his son, a father invokes his own father; shared experiences link generations of fathers, simultaneously hidden and revealed.
Michelle Disler’s poem, “gun,” highlights a brief transcendent and funny moment for a father and daughter, and the kind of clever/tough relationship that seldom makes the headlines (but should). “gun” is the rare contemporary poem that stays with its initiating subject, a kind of parental consistency. The poem’s look on the page, a result of large spaces between lines rather than line breaks, seems shot-through with bullet holes, but reads as a smooth narrative joy ride.
Photo by Kristin Wall