Our fathers worked in factories and butcher’s markets. They drove ash-flecked pick-up trucks, ragged-out muscle cars, and second-hand sedans. They left before we awoke and came home early in the evening, the day still smoldering in nearly-visible waves off their shoulders. They sat at the kitchen table and smoked cigarettes and we were terrified of them because of their untouchable power, the divinity of their ascension and return, like God reborn each day. Some nights, we found them sitting on the front porch smoking, staring at the sky, perhaps wondering whatever happened to that dream of going to Nashville and writing songs, playing in the same honky-tonks as Willie and Waylon and Hank, whatever happened to that beautiful raven-haired girl from Jacksonville, the one who looked Native American, the one who still came to them in their dreams some nights even as our mothers slept close by, asleep, sound in the knowledge of four walls and a bi-weekly paycheck. Deep in their own dreams, our mothers chased visions, too; but this isn’t about mothers. This is about fathers.
Our fathers watched us grow into boys who were so different from the boys they had been. We were boys who knew how to save the princess and how get thirty men on Contra but who had no idea how to clean a catfish, who didn’t know that one jagged fin could slice open the flesh of your hand as quickly as a razor. We were boys who preferred the sudden violent barrage of college football, not the cool distance of baseball. Our fathers still remember stats from the 1950s, 60s, 70s. They know how many homeruns Mantle hit. They saw Bill Buckner blow the World Series, and later, over beers with their friends, our fathers laughed at Buckner, the way that ball rolled right between his legs and out into history. But secretly, our fathers worry that they are a lot like Bill Buckner. They worry that when the time comes, opportunity will slip from their glove and roll away into the outfield, and our fathers will spend their lives wondering what might have happened had they scooped up the ball and made the tag on first base. Driving home from work, they think about the long evenings of their childhoods, when they walked home from a sandlot or an abandoned, overgrown field, a bat over their left shoulder, a Boston Red Sox or LA Dodgers or Atlanta Braves cap low over their eyes. At night, they would lay awake and calculate their own batting average or ERA. They had it down to a swing. Statistics never lie. They pictured themselves at the big show, alone on the mound, just them and the catcher. An Eastwood thousand-yard stare.
But when they came home from the factory or the butcher’s market or the shrimp trawler, our fathers discovered us stretched out in front of color televisions, sipping Kool-Aid (red), and watching Scooby Doo and Shaggy too chasing Old Man What’s His Name in a monster mask through a haunted house that might be scary save for a laugh track and some kind of goofy soundtrack that makes our fathers wonder if we know what real music is at all. They want to speak to us, our fathers, but they know that we’ll never understand what it means to look at a weekly time card, to see the minutes scored deep into the punch card’s sick green color and know that this is life: awaking the same time each morning, drinking black coffee and not eating breakfast because whenever someone turns on the radio on the floor at work around 10 a.m. and you hear yet again that mortgage rates are rising and the real estate market has bottomed out and America has absolutely sold her soul to China or Japan or India or some other country, you feel a sickness deep in your stomach. But it’s more than your stomach; it’s a sickness that weakens your arms and your knees and puts a metallic sheen over your tongue and torques your throat tight and you picture your son or daughter walking down I-75 past Hoover towns and tent cities, pushing a grocery cart full of everything they own in the world, and the America you once knew is nothing more than a fairy tale or myth or religion. No, that boy or girl or boys or girls in front of the Panasonic 22-inch color TV with digital cable won’t understand that sinking fear or the way the supervisor looks at you and says What’s the matter with you? Did you drink too much last night or something?
Our fathers say, “How was school?”
We say, “Okay.”
Our fathers say, “What did you do?”
We say, “Not much.”
Our fathers learn to retreat from us. Our lives are inscrutable to them. They picture our high school the way we might picture space stations, foreign and futuristic, a hive of tunnels and rooms, hallways packed with people who all seem to know where they’re going next, what they’re going to do, where they’re going to wind up.
Our fathers do not remember their high schools. If anything, they remember the girl who sat in front of them in 10th grade history. Her honey blonde hair spilled straight down her back like golden lyre strings. Our fathers remember her smell, a sweet honeysuckle. Once, she borrowed a pencil and gave it back three days later, her tiny teeth marks up and down the pencil shaft. When she died in college after a night out partying with boys our fathers would never have a chance to know, our fathers remembered that pencil and what it felt like in their hands, rough and gnarled.
Our fathers say, “Did anything interesting happen today?”
“No,” we say. “Nothing happened. Nothing happened. Nothing happened.”
Sometimes our fathers drink, and sometimes they drink to excess, maybe on a Saturday afternoon in the fall when the team they follow because of its geographical location (our fathers didn’t go to college) is losing to a cross-state rival or is winning a bowl championship and our fathers are throwing back Budweiser or Coors Light or maybe Michelob and they’re happy for a while there in front of the TV, this one day when we aren’t monopolizing it. Those nights, our fathers do not sleep well. They wake up three or four times despite the alcohol clouding their systems and they sit on the toilet and feel their insides drain away and they remember that weekend in Panama City right after they got out of the Navy back in ’72 or the day their cousin came home from Vietnam or the night your uncle scored three touchdowns to win the state game and our fathers went downtown and drank and drank and drank and smoked cigarettes and thought about the future, a haze of visions back then, laid atop one another, a palimpsest on which our fathers wrote their futures. Now our fathers aren’t so healthy any more; they know they can’t drink that way and they know when they lie back down by our mothers that one day their hearts will stop or one day a black spot will blossom on their lung or liver or prostate and that spot will tentacle out and their bodies will gradually dry out and they’ll turn to dust and blow away into the night, leaving us all alone and fatherless and unable to reassemble all the fragments that our fathers hold together nightly, lying away, thinking of the future, of God, of the world markets that seem to fall daily, of a government so bent on freedom that it enslaves work-a-day fools like our fathers, who had the common decency to believe in a stupid dream they learned in a history book back before the world stopped making any sense, back before age and hairlines and paychecks and social security and all of us, who came into the world like tiny screaming fists.
Can you blame our fathers when they don’t eat much at night and insist that they’re not hungry? Can you blame our fathers when they’re short with us and our mothers and our pets, that dog that we wanted, the one who makes every step our fathers make, the dog who sits curled at our fathers’ feet while CNN reports doom and gloom and recession and depression and a future that fades as surely as the TV when our fathers finally turn it off and glide down the hallway. They stop by our rooms and peek in and remember all those summers ago in South Georgia when they picked cotton with our grandfathers or that summer in the textile mill in New Jersey or the year they sold Red Wing shoes door to door in one of the Five Boroughs or one of California’s gridded neighborhoods; they wonder what it was all for, their father screaming at them about prices and time and a burlap sack that could hold more if our fathers would just stop being so goddamned lazy and work or the boss man who held our fathers’ paycheck for two weeks because—well, because is sometimes the only reason you ever get. What’s it worth, our fathers wonder, if it all comes down to this—the last era of the nuclear family, the tiny apocalypse of now, the world sliding away in days and hours and minutes and seconds and breath?
Our fathers’ nightmares are never narrative. They are lyrical flashes of empty towns and deserted highways, of dead, gray oceans, of burned forests. Distorted faces flashing in lightning. Disembodied words, or the sounds of words: not quite language, not quite moans. Gutted houses at the end of burnt-out cul-de-sacs. Of us, their sons and daughters, staring into an empty sky, a wordless scream on our lips.
Our fathers awaken slowly, the dream images still clinging to their subconscious like spider webs. They sit up. They light a cigarette and listen to our mother’s breath, the sweet breath of life. They think of their own mother who died in that nursing home in Colquitt, Georgia, or in that car accident outside Pasedena, or in that plane crash on a bright Tuesday in September, or laying alone in her bed, counting the ceiling tiles.
Our fathers have long ago stopped praying, but as they sit on their side of the bed, they remember their mother mouthing the words each night God our father, we give thanks. God bless . . . God bless . . . God bless . . . blank after blank after blank of friends and relatives and mere acquaintances, any face or name that popped into our fathers’ minds so many years ago, back when the world seemed to fit between two cupped hands, back when the world seemed a breath in their mother’s mouth, a word yet to be spoken, not the echo of this tiny house in some nameless tiny town or suburb or city fading into the twilight of the future.
Photo by Jason Famularo on Flickr