My father’s memoirs are short of stature. Reading them you would have never guessed he was of the barrel-chested kind. I was born in Gary, Indiana in 1946. When printed off, it spans 52 pages. But there are paragraphs done in 12 point Allegro BT; others in Comic Sans 11. Whole chapters are done entirely in 11 point Bernhard Fashion. It is almost impossible to read. I could figure it out, I suppose. How many pages is that really? My parents were never around. My older brother raised me. My mother’s name was Edith. She had a terrible temper. There are graphics from ClipArt inserted into the middle of paragraphs, the margins of text. Hand graphics. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. I did not marry her because I loved her most. I have loved many women. He did not love my mother most. There could have been many reasons for that. Heart graphics whole. Heart graphics broken. These are a list of the medicines I’m on:
My father died on May 23, 2003. A heart attack. He was 57 years old. His last minutes were spent with a woman he may have had some affection for. He started coughing! He choked! He fell off his chair! I did CPR. But it is hard to tell how he spent his free time, much of it up there in the mountains in the RV he bought for our cross-country move 20 years ago. The RV he named Earl. Sunny, Alice and I were children then. The landscape of our adventure will be as close as I get to the Eden that is said to have existed.
My father’s corneas were donated to a blind girl in Saudi Arabia; his skin to burn victims. What skin did they choose, the doctors? What skin could they have found that wasn’t thick with hair, speckled by age spots? My father’s other parts were quickly burned, and the container he came home in weighed more than I ever could have imagined.
Sunny’s friends now tell us they saw her. A naked woman, running out and in of father’s RV, camped at Blue River.
I want details. I want to know the girth of her hips. The elasticity of her skin. Blond hair or black. Fat or thin. Laughing? Did her thighs jiggle when she ran?
I want names. Dates.
I want places of residence. Places of work.
I want full fucking exposure.
My father was born in Gary, Indiana in 1946. Did I mention this already? He was the youngest of four, but because there were 26 years between him and his oldest brother, 18 years between him and his youngest brother, it’s as if he were an only child. His mother was 45 when he was born. For the longest time my father suspected he was not legitimate, but there is no doubt now that he has the broad shoulders and forehead of the others. It’s there in this framed black and white of his family, maybe the only one they have of everyone together. Before uncle Mike put a gun to his head. Before grandpa died of lung cancer, spread to his brain. Father was 17 then. His job was to take turns with grandma, sitting with his father in the dying room, sitting there as his father asked him, who are you? do I know you? hey, you, what’s your name?
Dad got nutty at the end, my father used to laugh. Eyes crinkling at the corners.
I know there’s something funny here too.
Hey, did you hear?
My father keeled over in the middle school cafeteria! Talking to that teacher! (Ha ha ha ha ha ha!)
The last thing he smelled was the smell of tater tots! (Ho ho ho ha!)
A dead man.
A dead man who?
I called to say hi, but mother wasn’t there so I guessed I’d talk to him. Though he really disliked talking on the phone, which I understand because I’m not too fond of it either. When does one pause on the phone? When does one speak? When does one stop? What if my pause corresponded to his pause and we found ourselves in the deep end of silence and then one started speaking and the other did too at the same time and then I acted apologetic but he was too fed up with the whole thing anyway that he just said, that’s about it, ok, bye. But this time he seemed jolly, though there were great pauses between words, and I thought again, as I had before, that the alcohol must have been killing his mind. His bright, brilliant mind. How could it have been possible to forget the word the?
So Sunny called the other day, he said. You remember Sunny, right?
Is this a joke? I thought. But wait, no, this is the belittlement. This is the cynicism.
Of course I know Sunny, I said. Sunny’s my brother, dad.
I expected him to hang up on me for talking like that.
But I don’t think he heard me, and so he said,
Everything’s great here. It snowed yesterday. The dog’s a little stiff. OK, you be well.
After getting kicked out of a conservative Midwest college for dancing, father braved the journey and ventured west. His mother shook her head, knowing the seductive dangers the west sprouted in its wild soil. You’re odd fruit, she said. Figures you’d join the rest of that weird harvest. Grandma liked talking in metaphor.
With a suitcase, guitar, and camera, he discovered the west, eventually graduating from a university with honors. Math, initially. Then philosophy. He roamed the forested hills above the valley and gathered a flock of friends who marveled at his wit, his humor, his thoughts. They sat around a communal table, warm, shiny wood, and wondered about existence, love, truth. In between they pulled out cheap guitars, agreed on the Byrds, Beatles, CS&N, Jackson Browne; other songs they had invented and were now spinning into the air like strands of gold silk.
Sunny, Alice, I in the back seat. The Beatles on the cassette player. It was the medley from Abbey Road. The end of the song, father turned it up: And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make. Know what this means? He looked at us through the rearview mirror. Other times, he used that mirror to see if we were moving too much. Not sitting still. If our faces looked like we were preparing to whine about something. The mirror he used to pin us with his eyes, invisible jaw clenching. We didn’t respond. We were listening. It has nothing to do with sex, he said. But that was just embarrassing. I was fifteen. Sunny eleven. Alice in between. You can’t experience love without giving love, he said. The more you love people, the more love you yourself get in return. Understand?]
Father met mother. She was the lighter of the candles, the singer of the sweet songs, and he loved her soft blond hair, her true pious nature, her slim figure, her high cheekbones and smooth skin.
Father grew his hair long and wore a messy beard. He permed both when the mood struck. He decided on a pair of spectacles and tossed the heavy brown frames of his other glasses. The spectacles’ wires curled protectively around the backs of his ears. Father wore wide, flowered bell-bottoms. Mother wore short skirts and long hair. It was a time to be reckoned with.
Married, father and mother returned to the Midwest where father felt a duty towards his family and much of mankind. He drove trucks and completed his PhD. He said he learned more from the truckers. His 1000-page bound thesis is to this day used as a text in Indiana University’s Philosophy Today seminar.
Professor Johnson once told my mother, He is a genius.
Professor Johnson was on father’s side.
Father was never tenured. Father never attended departmental socials.
Father scoffed at the swept ground beneath his leather-bound feet.
Father soon fell out of the company. Of colleagues. Of all philosophers, dead and alive. He decided he would truck again.
He told a story. It went like this: The word was maniacal. My buddy, what was his name again? Jerry, I think. We had the same route. Here I was, educated, PhD. And Jerry, Jerry maybe made it through high school. Maybe. Jerry, I said, the word is pronounced maniac-al. And he said, No John, it’s pronounced maniacal. I knew he was wrong, until I found out he wasn’t. And that taught me that just because you’re educated doesn’t mean you’re smarter.]
Father gained weight. Father’s hair fell thin. Father’s nose beamed red.
Still, when he returned from the road I’d pop the gumballs he had for us into my mouth. Sweet. Smooth. I’d hang on to his wide, warm chest. Mother would light the candles for the family table.
My parents’ bedroom door always remained closed. Not to keep us out, but more to preserve the space of sacred separateness, I suspect; the cool climate of peace. As a child, turning the knob of that hallowed door and stepping into the cool fragrance of my parents’ bedroom. The window ajar. The curtains hesitating in what one might assume to be movement. From there I turned always to the dresser. Mother’s three drawers on the left. Father’s three drawers on the right. But first the items on top. Mother’s heart-shaped porcelain perfume bottle, a gift from father. When my fingers found its smooth shape and traced the orb of its round body down and up again, the surface felt refreshing and existed in that realm of the not-too-smooth, not-too-rough. There was texture there that seemed to enlighten it, place it somewhere above the smooth glass bottles. When I lifted the bottle up and slowly pulled out the stopper from on top, it slid out with the slightest pride of resistance. The sound it made was slooooooot.
But the real treasure lay underneath father’s black nylon knee socks and piles of white underwear, where he kept a large green velvet-lined box. Digging, digging, and finally. Inside, his small wooden pipe that doused the room with the sweet smell of tobacco. Inside, the long string of green and white flowered love beads mother had strung together in their college days. Inside, his brother Mike’s silver ring pulled off after the suicide. Inside, a watch he would never wear because it gave him a rash. Inside, the small charm bestowed upon his father for his 25 years of service to the Indiana steel mills.
And it was this I coveted. This small gold-plated charm of the heroic stacks of the mills. As if this one item could somehow relay the reality of the past.
A hit usually leaves a mark. But not always. Though we never saw each other naked then, brother, sister, me. There could have been more. Sunny disobeyed. Sunny was impossible. Out of control. Playing with matches. Not sitting still. Not swallowing his medicine. Hiding it in a pile between the wall and refrigerator.
I’m not sure. There must be degrees of punishment. A light kick will leave no mark. A heavy kick will. Getting a boy up the stairs probably takes plenty of muscling. A kick or two for good measure, just to make sure he doesn’t fall down backwards. A shallow push against the wall will not hurt the head. A hard push will distress the wall. A light rap to the head will only make the head hinge backwards slightly. A fierce rap will make the head fall back and bring the body with it.
If it rains, I’ll wear a raincoat.
If it rains and is cold, like it often is on this island in Alaska, the kind of cold that blows in from the ocean, cold, indifferent, fierce, then I’ll wear the black fleece under the long raincoat.
If it rains and isn’t cold; if it’s, say, 58 degrees and 89% humidity; if I know I’ll start sweating, even if it’s just a little bit, not enough to wet my clothes, then I’ll wear the light green raincoat. The one I go running in. The one with the side vents that unzip all the way down.
I can’t remember what clothes I brought. What clothes I left stashed in two drawers in the spare room dresser. Most likely I will wear what I usually wear. Jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. I can’t remember what I’m wearing now. When I look down I see that I’m wearing jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. When I look back up again, I forget what I’m wearing.
There are so many shirts to choose from.
Socks. Cotton socks. Wool socks. Itchy socks. Soft socks.
Shoes. Hiking boots.
Gloves. To glove or not to glove.
We sit around the kitchen table my parents bought from Sears when we moved to upstate New York those many years ago. Now it is here, with us still. Brother and sister. Flown back. Together again. We stare at each other and then proceed to dig, shovels in hands, into the moist ground of our talk. Sometimes it feels good on my hands and I like getting dirt under my nails. We find broken pieces of clay pots, stone tools, discarded primitive weapons. (Bear with me.) We have unearthed the greatest dig of the century. We almost all come to a consensus. We confess his acts of violence. We confess his acts of love.
At last, we drive up to the mountains, listening to father’s Howlin’ Wolf CD. We climb the steep incline to the long, narrow, wooden bridge that begins the trek into the mountains beyond Blue River. This is where he would come. To these mountains, these waterfalls, these rushing waters following the mountains’ ravines like blood in veins. We don’t think about the women, the drink. Mother holds the box open. We each grab a handful and toss the gray ashes into the air. They fall. Then float just like speckles of pure silver on the cold, clear surface of the mountain water.
Who remembers the dead? Who remembers the dead when they’re gone? Who remembers the dead when they’re gone and the people who knew them are gone? Who remembers the dead when they’re gone and the people who knew them are gone and every possible memory has effectively vanished? Who remembers the dead when they’re gone and the people who knew them are gone and every possible memory has effectively vanished and at the end someone (oh god, are there more of them?) is left, standing around, standing around on piles of ashes without knowing it because there is a huge grassy hill there now, wondering to himself, “Who remembers the dead? Who remembers the dead when they’re gone? Who remembers the dead when they’re gone and the people who knew them are gone? Who remembers the dead when they’re gone and the people who knew them are gone and every possible memory has effectively vanished?”
Five Beatles’ albums. A University of Chicago play poster for Godspell. A blue and white tile that says Shalom. The Hay and Feed barn photograph from southern Indiana; the one father took and then had washed out so that it looks like it’s been done in pen and ink. Mother posing in profile on the Oregon coast in her wedding dress; the sun already set in the background; the ocean deep blue and silver. Father hugging Alice and me, together squeezed in between his hairy arms, smiles large and open, as if we were caught mid-laugh. Sunny, Alice and me posing in front of mother’s quilt. The three of us running, hands locked, in an apple orchard, sunlight bouncing off our hair. Father’s family. Father’s three high school friends, posing in the photo above as teenagers, in the photo below as middle-agers, bellies, beards, gray hair, no hair. Two Bob Dylan records: Shot of Love and Slow Train Coming. A poster for Manassas. A poster of Renoir’s Umbrellas. Mother in her twenties, blond hair down to her waist, staring into the camera from a field of golden grass that hides, reveals her body. A red barn. A robin’s nest with three blue eggs inside. A spider’s web with raindrops on it. Father’s first dog, Lucy, running through a snowy Indiana field.
Father had started the engine of the U-Haul. Sunny and I squeezed in next to him. Mother and Alice to follow in the car. In the back, all our possessions. We were moving to another rental on the other side of town. A sunny afternoon. The wind blowing the green leaves on so many trees. Father was feeling good. Melissa Etheridge in the cassette player. She sang. At the wheel, a beer in hand. Mother looked in the window, You shouldn’t be drinking and driving. Father laughed. He laughed because mother loved to be right. She had no sense of humor. She liked things to be her way. He took a swig and began backing the truck up. His window down. Elbow hanging out. You worry too much, he told her as we passed. He drove the truck through the country roads, the other side of town. The neck of the bottle clasped loosely between the thumb and forefinger of his steering hand. Hanging, like a feather about to take flight.
The river was higher than usual that day. It had rained long and hard the night before. When we awoke to sunshine and blue sky, we knew the falls would be the best it had ever been for us. We pulled on cut-offs and t-shirts, our bathing suits on underneath. Father hopped on his bike, cut-offs stringy like ours, sockless feet double-knotted into a pair of wrinkled basketball shoes. Let’s go. He carried the inner tube with one arm. We followed his lead, pedaling up the hill, stopping at the sharp bend in the road. Leaning our bikes against the side of the hill by the shoulder, finding the tiny trail hiding in the underbrush. Sliding down the path, bushes scratching our legs, jumping into the shallow sides of the river that ran underneath the bridge, and I suddenly felt the gentle push of cooler air against my face. Like there was a god down there, exhaling. Whooeee! This way! Come on, dad! We stepped over the long, flat rocks of the river, careful not to fall into the deeper holes between. We passed the icy spring bubbling up from the middle of bright green moss by the opposite bank. And, finally, the falls, short enough to climb down, its water splashing over our shoes and ankles. At the base of the falls, a large natural hole, so deep that we couldn’t touch, as big and round as a large hot tub. On the mossy rocks at its edge, hundreds of tiny river worms in their little mud casings. Father did a cannonball into the hole and water hiccupped out in messy waves. Come on, dad! This way! Sunny grabbed father’s hand. Alice and I pushed his back. His solid torso, covered in brown hair. We laughed, worshipped, for he would go first. He flew, stomach-first, onto the inner tube, rode the crashing silver waves down to the curve in the river. When Sunny went down, last, his body got sucked into the rapids there, at the curve. Like the damn water was vengeful. His slick cap of blond hair surfaced and went under, over and over again. No time or space to breathe. Father walked into the rapids, the water making white around his calves. He teetered but found some grip. He reached out, into the mess, and pulled Sunny out.
It’s possible he manufactured his death and is currently living in cognito. I can think of nothing he would like more. To observe, to love us, from a distance. To preclude the pain of a return.
In fact, I see him. I see him driving the opposite car at the intersection. I see him rounding the aisle in the grocery store. I see him walking in the airport. That one. That balding man in the crowd.
Walking the other way.