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The first time I met my father was at my mother's funeral and the only reason I knew it was him was that Uncle Phil, my mom's brother, said "Hey, here's your goddamn good-for-nothing father" and proceeded to kick my father's ass, landing them both in jail. Aunt Shirley left them for two days to cool off; it made all the local papers. I was nineteen and had hoped to meet my father under better circumstances, but dutifully I went to jail to introduce myself, only he'd been bailed out and scrammed not twenty minutes earlier. Three years later, I finally got the chance to meet him, and that's the story I'm going to tell.
Where this happened was a small place just north of Milwaukee, an ex-quarry village called Menomonee Falls which, if you hadn't lived there all your life, was a lonely place to be in your early twenties. My mom grew up in this town and had planned to retire there someday. I'd moved there for an electronics job at the Honeywell plant, but it didn't pan out so I made do with tending bar at a HoJo and renting a two-bedroom apartment on the northeast, near the new YMCA. Arlene, the Polish woman who split rent with me, worked at the Y as a judo and step aerobics instructor despite being, as I later learned, HIV positive.
We didn't have a thing or anything—she'd sworn off relationships forever after a one-nighter with a Brad Pitt-like guy gave her "the bug," as she put it—but man was she a looker. Before I knew she was sick, Arlene lied and said she was a lesbian and that she'd had sex with two guys before, but that was in high school, and all she said was that she remembered it being "icky."
"But if you found the right…?" I had asked, to which she replied, "Maybe."
One evening, Arlene sat in front of the TV, the last Diet Pepsi sweating in her hand as we got ready for prime time. Arlene's constant teasing drove me nuts, but I played along, always thinking I'd tell her one day that it bothered me all to hell, HIV or not. She was my only friend in town, though.
"You're still my sweetheart, aren't you, Toby?" she said in her gravelly voice.
"For today, at least," my answer, as always.
She poured her soda into a glass with ice and sat on the faux leather couch. I joined her and turned on the set. In purple slacks and white-on-white sweater, she was dressed to go partying, though her pal Susan had just now backed out with a lame-o excuse. The tiny diamond in Arlene's left nostril winked in the fluorescent haze from the ceiling lamp.
"Let's keep the volume down," I said. "I've got this splitter of a headache." I was lying, of course, but I often said things like this to see if people cared about me enough to do what I asked. Petty, for sure, but I fumbled through my early years without enough attention, though my mom really tried. Before she got really sick, anyway.
Arlene put her arms around my neck and kissed the top of my head. "Poor baby," she cooed. I could smell her lavender shampoo.
We watched part of a Cheers rerun—the one where Sam dumps a semi-long-term girlfriend he'd met at a ball game—then some garbagey show about two Tom Cruise look-alikes chasing a brunette bombshell on a motorcycle across America. It was exactly the type of mind-number we'd come to expect from TV.
Eventually, the bubble of silence between us grew too large.
I muted the TV and said, "We should really do something."
She was off the couch in a second. "God, I'm glad one of us had the rocks to say it. I was starting to go stir-crazy."
I clicked off the set and got ready, all the while thinking how nice it was to go clubbing with someone like Arlene. Like a high school buddy who still enjoyed being stupid, an almost-perfect friend, except this friend—who was dying, I had to keep reminding myself—gave me a seriously hopeless case of blue-ball.
• • •
The club was jammed. Some kind of techno-bebop-fusion mix was being DJ'd through huge 400-watt speakers and after two or three highballs, I was ready to invite a little trouble. Arlene used to work at an Arthur Murray studio and had an array of old hokey dance steps at her disposal, which worked out fine because my mom had taught me to dance in our tiny apartment and all she knew were oldies.
"Wanna jitterbug?" I asked, struggling a bit with the cuffs of my red velvet shirt. It was hot, all those bodies and cigarette smoke.
We watched a dark-skinned woman in a green sequin halter-top strut past. Arlene squeezed my hand tight under the little table we stood at. This woman weighed maybe eighty-five pounds, with bony shoulders and a spine that stuck out, she was so skinny.
"Yum-yuck," I said.
"Amen," said Arlene, a little giggly now. "I need another drink."
So we had a couple. And then a couple more. Before long, we were rocking there at the table—not roaring drunk, mind you—and we broke into a Tango. Swear to God.
We glided across the floor, unembarrassed and unfazed. Pretty soon, others were joining in and even when Marilyn Manson thrashed through the speakers, we had the whole place doing the swing. One-two, turn-two, swing-two, turn-two.
Arlene broke loose and checked her hair in the reflection on a brass column, patted it in a few places, then eased back to me like a puff of breath on an icy morning, barely moving at all. She was a few years from the prime of her life and just knowing that her body was raging inside, working against her like a million tiny assassins who all had her number, it made me angry. Even there on the dance floor with everyone copying our thirty-year-old spins and wring-the-dishrag moves, I couldn't stop sober thoughts like this from souring the moment. Arlene seemed pleasantly oblivious.
"Having fun?" I asked her, sweat-streams burning at my eyes. I wiped at them with my sleeve.
She twirled from my hands and ducked underneath my arm, came up behind to grind against my back. "A blast," she said, her hips driving hard into my rear, hands linked at my waist. Her nails were painted purple and had flecks of gold glitter in them.
"Yeah, I could do this all night."
"Maybe we should head home," she said. I paused, startled to hear my own thought echoed aloud. She rubbed at her right shoulder as if it were sore.
For a moment, I thought there was potential for, well, something. But the look in her eyes was all wrong and I wondered how I could ever have thought it was real in the first place. What was I thinking, anyway?
Any chance of the two of us together had long since blown away, a scrap of discarded paper, a wisp of smoke from her occasional Virginia Slims Light. It was like the Seurat exhibit at the Institute of Art she'd dragged me to see the month prior—you stared and stared at Un Dimanche d'été, thinking you were seeing one thing, then you got up close and it was something else entirely; that's how our relationship was.
• • •
The next day I wasn't working, so when Arlene crept off to Good Morning Menomonee Falls aerobics in her spandex jumpsuit and special sneakers just before 7 a.m., I lay in bed and not for the first time considered packing up my Escort hatchback and heading the hell for the border. Hangovers did this to me, set the panic reflex into overdrive. Any border would do. Nothing kept me there, no true obligation or familial ties, not since my mom died. It was a masterpiece of regret and self-pity to live in a town where the only person I really knew, save Arlene, was in the Lannon Public Cemetery, not twelve miles from my apartment.
That's when the first call came. I was so deep in my own thoughts that it scared me half to death to hear the phone. I fumbled in the thick bedroom dark until I corralled it on the fifth ring.
"Hello?" I said.
"Kim? Is Kim there?" says some woman, sounding confused. Maybe drunk.
"Wrong number." And I hung up, then five seconds later the phone rang again. I tugged the jack from the wall and left it dangling off the nightstand.
When Arlene got home just when it was getting dark, I'd clean forgotten about the phone calls. I made her a microwave dinner and she ate while telling me about how one of her beginner judo students, some high school girl, had a rip in the crotch of her spandex.
I stayed up with her to watch Letterman, but the Top Ten was more political mumbo-jumbo and even our conversation during commercials was dim, as if we both were both thinking about something else. I wanted a certain level to my whatever-it-was relationship with her and it was frustrating to live such separate lives. When I was in middle school, one of the teachers told a story about Nanook the Eskimo who got stuck on an ice floe and just floated out into the ocean until there was nothing but him, biting cold, near-frozen water as far as he could see, and despair that worked on him like the blue sky.
"You okay?" she finally asked as yet another K-tel Greatest Hits of the 80s commercial scrolled silently up the screen.
She tilted her head at me, then reached for her cigarettes. Sometimes she joked about dying of emphysema or lung cancer. What she didn't realize was she was the only one who thought these jokes were funny. The days were like the growing kidney failure of my emotional life; as we each came one day closer to the inevitable, we needed to make the best of what we still had ahead, what we still had now. Salvage happiness from each day was my motto, or at least the one I liked to think I had.
"You know what I'd like?" she said, pinching the cigarette between thumb and forefinger and pointing it at me. "Some coffee. Strong black coffee."
"I need some sleep. I'm completely bushed," I said.
She shook out her hair and said, "Okay. I'll make enough for two. Just in case you decide sleep's for the birds."
Despite the invite, I went to bed and locked the door. A little rain began to fall outside the window and even when I took the pillow and covered my head, I couldn't make the noise stop. When some of the smoke from her cigarette drifted into my room, I knew I was in for a long, tortured night. But I couldn't bring myself to go back to sit with her on the couch and drag her down with my dark thoughts, fears that I'd never know my father, that I'd never know what peace of mind really is, that I was stuck on my own iceberg and the shoreline was so distant that it might not be there at all.
If she didn't have any fears, who was I to share mine?
• • •
Three days later, a September evening at the tail end of a freak cold snap, Arlene was "under the weather," code for PMS. I sat in the living room, fiddling with the old console radio she'd bought at a pawn shop recently for thirty-five bucks, but it only picked up Paul Harvey. Even worse, the on/off switch was on the fritz so we had to yank the plug to shut 'ole Paul up.
"I'm dead-tired," Arlene said when she got home from work that evening, and sank right there onto the couch. The tone in her voice was ominous, but I didn't think much about it. Instead I went to the kitchen and watched prime time on the little black and white near the stove. A couple of peanut butter-and-potato chip sandwiches went down fast, not because of hunger, but because I needed something to do with my hands.
Times like this always made me think about my mother, how she used to talk to me late at night in a voice that barely qualified as a whisper. "Too many things don't last, but a mother's love for her son? That's for always," she'd said more times than I can remember. But sitting in a darkened kitchen with a little TV now puttered off into static, it was hard to believe she was with me, no matter what promise she'd made.
Then I heard a noise, something I don't mind admitting scared me. It reminded me of the time one of the neighbor kids fell face-first off his bike and his teeth, because his mouth was open howling for help, cracked horribly against the concrete. At the time, I'd have sworn there were sparks. The piercing screech from the next room was so immediate and pained that it snapped me to instant alertness.
I ran to the living room. Arlene was rocking on the couch, legs tucked up against her chest as she stared into the darkness outside through the front window. Her eyes gleamed with tears and her mouth was moving as if in quiet prayer or repeating something to herself so she'd never, never forget.
I put my arms around her and said, "Hey, it's okay," voice cracking in my frustration of not knowing quite what to say. I'd delayed too long in getting her to talk about "the bug." My timing was off. I should've done it the day before when I was considering it. Or three nights back. Anytime but now, too late. "It's gonna be okay."
I figured for sure that she was regretting her decision not to take any therapy for it, no new designer drugs. Me? I'd take any chance, no matter how slim, to keep on ticking.
Her eyelids fluttered. She reached out tentatively toward me, then put a hand on my knee. Even through my pants, her skin was cold. She licked her lips as though she might talk. I reached for her cigarettes, but she didn't react so I put them back down.
"You don't have to say anything," I said, holding her close. She nuzzled into my chest and I clucked my tongue into her ear and rubbed her head and shoulders until morning, even though I had to be at work early the next day. It was then, I think, that I realized what a hopeless love I had, which is different from being hopelessly in love. Though now that I think about it, maybe not. But this is only one part of the story, me admitting I loved Arlene.
• • •
When I returned from a long shift at two HoJo conference lunches the next afternoon, there he was when I answered the door: my father.
In a spasm of alarm, I recognized him from the funeral as well the photo that had run in one of the local papers, showing my father all bloodied and disheveled from Uncle Phil's pounding. Today he wore an open-necked shirt and a fancy, European-cut wool suit the color of a sapphire. He wasn't a big man, but his belly and washed-out little eyes spoke of a lifetime's love of rotgut and too little sleep. Not for the first time, I wondered what my mother had ever seen in him.
My father smiled. His smooth glide towards me stopped the moment he saw the look on my face. I searched for something to say, something to ask this man who'd been anything but a part of my life, but every question seemed hopelessly destined to plunge us into an argument, or worse, him apologizing as if words could breach the twenty-year gap.
"How've you been?" he asked. I thought I could hear the gurgling of pigeons outside, it was so quiet.
"I feel like socking you one," I said, surprised that indeed, I really did.
He glanced behind him, like he was looking for someone, then turned back to me. "I can go, if that's what you want."
"Bye," I said to him, meaning it. "Au revoir."
Only he didn't leave. Why would he say anything that he meant when he didn't keep any promise to my mother, either? I knew the story. She'd sobbed it enough times over the years.
He began to fidget, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"Can I just come in for a second? Please?"
There was a silent, sweet rot to his words that interested me, so I waved him in, asked him to sit in the couch across from me. He did. Arlene always said I could forgive anyone for anything if they intrigued me enough.
"So," I said.
He leaned forward and began talking with his hands as much as his lips. "You won't believe what I'm about to say. You won't believe it at all, so I'm warning you up front—this is true."
Right then, in walked Arlene with her sunlamp tan, wearing a fiery orange leotard.
"Lotta nerve," she said loud enough for everyone to hear, though she sat in the dining room like she wasn't paying attention to us, though she was.
My father groaned and slurred, "Who the hell's this?" In that moment, he looked completely out of place in an expensive suit and more accustomed to blue jeans and engineer boots.
"Don't talk to her that way. And you," I said, wagging a finger at Arlene, "just cool it. Everyone just cool it."
"It's the chance of a lifetime," he said, beginning to stand. I waved him back down into his seat and gave Arlene a glare.
Arlene snorted something about swampland in Alaska, then stood up and moved towards the kitchen. "I'll get some drinks and stay out of the way." I heard the sound of the blender as she made up some frozen juice.
A damp breeze was coming from the window. "Be honest. What do you want? If it's money you want, I don't have any. I've got a paycheck-to-paycheck life here. That's all."
"No, no. You're got it exactly backwards. Good God," he said, clearly excited by the prospect of telling me whatever had brought him there, "you really can't prepare yourself for this. But here goes: I won."
"The lottery. The Illinois lottery."
"No one wins the lottery," Arlene said from the kitchen, loud enough for me to hear over the blender.
"Congratulations," I said, not sure what else to say. My mother always said that lotteries were a special tax for people who didn't understand probability, so she never let me waste money on a ticket. No one I'd known had ever won anything, let alone a jackpot.
"A lot of money?" I asked, thinking perhaps my life was about to change. Fate worked that way sometimes: suddenly.
"A lifetime's worth."
My father didn't move. He sat there, waiting for an answer, a response. I could see he wasn't going anywhere until I said something back, though he hadn't exactly asked a question.
Arlene strolled back into the living room with glasses of orange juice and English muffins. "We're out of coffee," she said by way of apology. I took a muffin and tried to catch hold of the thoughts zooming through my head. The foremost, for some reason, was shame. I was ashamed to be in the same room with my father.
What would my mother say? I kept thinking. What was I doing?
My father took juice and a muffin. "God, what a day. Thanks," he said to Arlene, flashing her a $15,000 smile like they were the best of friends. Arlene ignored him and sat on an easy chair.
"Well, I've got to get back to my hotel. I'm staying at the Ramada," he said after a minute or two, stretching lazily.
"Toby gets a discount at the Hojo. Why don't you stay there?" Arlene's offer summoned a heaviness in my chest.
I said, "It's only twenty percent. No one cares about twenty percent."
My father shrugged. His shiny yellow tie was twisted and I could see the tag still on it. "There is that. And money's not really an issue anymore. Not one whit."
Arlene cut me a look that I didn't have time to decipher. "Well, it's nice you thought of coming by," I said to him.
He paused with his hand on the front door. "Here's the deal. I'm meeting with my lawyer this weekend. He's got this pal who's got a place up north where we can chase deer all day, he says. More deer than you can imagine. Do you like hunting? I've been dying to go for months. It'd be good if you went, too, for all the legal stuff."
I started into an excuse about work, but he wasn't listening.
"Doesn't really matter. It's going to be more business than anything. I want to set up an account for you, Toby. I want you to have some security."
"How much security?" Arlene said, having eased up behind me almost protectively. Her warm breath raised gooseflesh on my neck.
"Half. For all the years I've missed out on his life…I'm giving him half. We just need to work out the details or Uncle Sam will take his share, then the state and locals will get a chunk, and you know how it goes—soon we're left holding nothing but a big empty sack that smells like money but won't buy you anything. God, do you know how many things I've wanted to do?"
"I don't know what to say," was all I could say. My stomach felt like a cement mixer.
"Promise me you'll come this weekend."
What could I say to that? What could anyone say to that? "Saturday then."
"Now we're getting somewhere. Saturday it is," my father said. I stuck my hand out and my fingers locked around his, stiff as anything. We shook and then he backed out into the night with a smile that wouldn't quit.
I shut the door without returning his wave. Then I turned to Arlene and asked, "And just what the hell are you doing?"
She bumped my leg with her leg hard, then did it again to show she meant it. "I don't like him."
"And neither should you," she said, shaking her head like I was too foolish to know what a fool I was. Then she paused. "You think it's a couple million at least, don't you? I mean, they guarantee some type of minimum, right?"
"I suppose they probably do. I don't know."
She let out a high laugh. "Not to sound petty or anything, but for a measly three million dollars, I'd do just about—"
I'm so angry with her right then for teasing me that I grabbed a handful of her hair and brought her close, kissing her full on the lips. She didn't resist at first. Then she pushed free and stared at me like I'd just confessed I was about to embark on a tri-state killing spree. Into her room she fled, locking the door behind her.
"My God," I said to the emptiness where she'd stood moments earlier. I was such an asshole. Jesus—what'd I just do?
• • •
My father made his presence known via gifts. First came a bouquet of irises with a card that had my father's name on it. Daryl.
They simply appeared on our kitchen table one afternoon, a giant spray of purple in one of those clear bubble vases, probably delivered while I was at work. Arlene was still avoiding me—which was eating me up because by now I had admitted to myself that I loved her—but her note taped to the fridge said the flowers were just sitting there on the porch when she got home. A day later brought another delivery guy to our place with a stone-colored Thermax polar suit and a waterproof vest, hunter orange.
"I didn't order these," I told the UPS guy.
"These are already paid for," he said, pushing the package and invoice at me. I stared at the box for a moment and took it inside, uncomfortable at how my father was going about all this. My mother would've called it the Elephant Trample approach. She said it was his SOP right up until he got distracted by something else. Someone else. It was easier to get through the week disliking him, so that's exactly how I handled it. Twenty years, for Chrissake.
There was a moral in this, I told myself. Yeah? Well, what is it? was the question I couldn't answer. All I knew was that I felt as if the air was dense, crushing, as gift after gift arrived. And worse, Arlene was staying late at work, going straight to bed, then gone the next day without a look my way. It was only when I called her work to ask Arlene about some strange charges on the phone bill that I realized she had taken a leave of absence and was spending her days at the hospital, getting treatment. She wanted to live, and in retrospect, being so happy about that made me overlook the sheer ridiculousness of what my father was up to, buying twenty lost years.
The polar suit, though, felt wonderful, with its half-glove-style sleeves and hollow-core fibers that seemed to radiate heat back into your skin. Mildew-resistant, odor-resistant, and shrink-resistant, this suit was fabulous. I boxed it back up and shoved it into the hall closet and for a moment, I felt like mixing myself a Gibson just because I hadn't made one in awhile.
"Want to know something?" Arlene asked the Friday night before the hunting trip. I nodded, relieved she was finally talking to me again. I wondered if she was ever going to tell me about the hospital visits.
"Every so often while I'm in bed, I feel something in my side. A pain, a sharp pang. Not a pulled muscle or anything, but something that keeps me up half the night wondering if I've got gallstones," she said, rubbing her left side as if it pained her to talk about it.
"Maybe a good, firm massage would help," I said.
She just kept talking, saying, "I've gone through the whole medicine cabinet, everything from Erythromycin to analgesic balm to Benadryl to Calamine lotion. No dice."
"Maybe you have kidney stones," I suggested, thinking of the guy who lived next door when I was young, how he used to howl and bang the bathroom walls in the middle of the night.
She smiled, then said, "What about my spleen? Isn't my spleen down there?"
I moved to the chair next to hers at the kitchen table. "Yeah, you never can be too sure about those spleens."
"Who knows? It could be a hernia. Or a tapeworm," she said, nodding.
"Or a psychosomatic disorder. You could have one of those."
"Oh, for sure. Maybe I've got the gallstone/kidney failure/hernia combo platter with a touch of hypochondria for flavoring. I'm no doctor, though. I wouldn't know," she said, laughing now, and I laughed right along with her. I touched her arm to show her I was okay with this joking, which for once I really was. Morbid discussions usually gave me a nervous stomach and I couldn't sleep afterwards.
Arlene got up and took her cigarettes and threw them in the garbage. "Nicotine and tar'll kill you," she said.
I nodded. Then I took the six-pack from the fridge and cracked them open upside-down over the sink. "This stuff is pure poison."
She got out the leftover prime rib from the night before and pushed it all down the disposal with her fingers. Then she turned it on, grinding the meat up with all the other flotsam of meals past.
"Good riddance," I said.
And pretty soon the fridge was empty and we're sitting there in the kitchen, laughing so hard about heart disease and strokes that I thought we'd both gone off the deep end. But anything, even pretending we felt good after throwing away the stupid cigarettes and beer and food, was better than worrying away the hours in quiet dread that she might not be around in six months.
By the time we hit the sack, it was after two in the morning. I pulled myself up in the bed and stayed that way for a while, me leaning back against the headboard as the soundlessness of nighttime gave way to the hammering in my chest.
• • •
My father picked me up early the next morning in a ritzy pickup so new that the chrome blazed like it was aflame. It was hot and oily-smelling in the cab. The weather was overcast and blustery, the type of day that could begin to pour. I had the polar vest on, but only underneath my own jacket and clothes, because I didn't want him to see I was wearing it. Even so, I felt guilty, like it gave him some kind of authority over me, a psychological edge, maybe. I wanted us on even ground.
"Good day for hunting," he said.
"Unless it rains. It might really go all to hell any minute."
He watched me closely, paying attention to what, I had no idea. "We can turn back anytime," he said. "But let's give it a little while to clear up. You never know with skies like this."
"You're the boss," I said, thinking of Arlene in a hard plastic chair at the hospital, a needle and tube pumping dark liquids into her. I wondered if it hurt.
We drove for one heckuva long time, the tinny radio speakers jamming out both sides of a Rolling Stones tape—I don't know which one, they all sounded the same to me. Farm country, miles and miles of it, blurred past. Just telephone pole after telephone pole shuttling a single wire to the horizon and back.
The jiggling and swaying of the cab along with the gasoline smell leaking through the vent was getting to me and, for a while, I thought I might be carsick. The last thing I wanted to do in front of him was toss up my breakfast.
"Doing okay?" He drove like me, with his wrist at twelve o'clock and his left arm in his lap.
"Be there soon?" I asked, my phantom queasiness starting to subside.
"Sure. My friend's place is just up ahead."
I looked at the compact brick farmhouses and mildew-mottled barns and chickens that scratched at the dirt and the dogs that chased the chickens. I asked, "You sure this is deer country? It doesn't look like it'd even be legal to hunt out here."
"Trust me," he said. Exactly the wrong thing to say to me. It reminded me how much I didn't trust him, which begged the question: just what the hell did I think I was doing out here? Which, of course, only had one answer: I couldn't afford not to be there.
• • •
We wrestled through a barbed wire fence, me stepping on the bottom wire and stretching up the top so he could crawl through, him doing the same for me. The sky had become the color of old mossy stones and everything seemed wet, like the air itself moved with ghostly slowness. We'd been following tracks for nearly half an hour when we ran across a doe, slumped in a stand of pokeweed like a crumpled grocery sack, its skin sagging, insides half-poured out in a waterfall of reddish ooze that gleamed even in the dim light.
"Damn hunters," I said, having seen a similar sight once before where a gut-shot deer had escaped only to run off and die.
"Not the one we'd been following. Too little to make these prints," my father said. Then he nudged the doe with the toe of his boot and it squished. Then he gave it a good kick and the belly, half-open, split wide and out poured a stream of white wigglers. Maggots. Thousands of them, buckets of them, squirming and burrowing and chewing.
My nausea came back like a wild creature rearing up to fight. Even turning away, I barely kept my composure.
"Let's move on," he said quickly, covering his own mouth, and I followed his footsteps, unable to crack open my eyes until we were far from that doe. Still I could see it in my mind, that living sheet of white. Devouring flesh from the inside out.
We walked a long time in silence. Sometime later, I realized my father was watching me oddly. Sizing me up, almost. I'd been so concerned with battling my nausea and clouded mind and doubts about coming at all that I hadn't noticed until now.
"So when's your lawyer-friend going to meet us?" I said to break the quiet and stop trying to guess what was going on in his mind. Hard to believe I actually thought there was a lawyer friend. Or any money, for that matter. Sometimes we do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.
He patted his jacket pocket. Just then I noticed it had begun to mist. His jacket was beaded with water.
"What've you got there?" I asked.
He unzipped his orange-red coat and slid a brand-new cellular phone out. He punched a button and it played "Dixie."
"Great stuff, huh? I just love this," he said, then had it play "Dixie" again. "He's going to call later, but probably won't make it up here until tomorrow. That okay with you?"
What was I supposed to say? Wait another day and get a truckload of cash. Tough choice. "Yeah. No problemo," I said, though the possibility of being deceived made me wonder whether greed wasn't getting the better of me.
He made the phone play "Dixie" once more and he danced to it, making so much noise that a pair of crows overhead took flight, squawking as they flapped towards the horizon.
"Think you can give that a rest? You'll scare away every deer from here to Manitoba."
My father gave me this look that made me think of a kid surprised by his own reflection in a funhouse mirror. He said, "Just a little fun. Don't you like to keep a little fun in your life? Lighten up. We're on vacation."
I didn't know him well enough to know his moods, but it was clear there was no reasoning with him right then. "Fine. Just put that thing away, okay?"
"Okay, okay," he said, making a production out of putting it back in his pocket. Then he gave me a decidedly unapologetic shrug as if the idea of feeling bad for this was ridiculous. My patience was feeling like a rope tied between two cars speeding in opposite directions.
I checked the sky. Energetic and single-minded, it seemed; it was moving fast. Rain was on its way for sure.
I said, "Let's find that deer."
• • •
It was during our second break that he brought it up. I was sitting on a mossy stump eating a Slim Jim and he paced, smoking a clove cigarette. Then he just said out of nowhere, "So what are you going to do? With the money, I mean."
I thought of Arlene and how she'd always wanted "a good china set" to replace the one her grandma had given her as a child but that had been lost during a move. A stupid thing to think of first, but it came to me before an expensive sports car, a Rolex that could tell time in seven different cities, a set of 14k golf clubs, a special library wing at a major university.
I didn't know what to say but the bartender in me knew he needed an answer and I gave one without missing a beat. "Anything I want, I guess."
He nodded, as if that's what he expected. Things started coming to me, things my mother had said off-hand over the years. Clues as to who the man before me was. Joined the Air Force out of high school. Liked to gamble at cards and horses. Considered a professional career as a gambler, a pool hustler. Worked for his father in a small sign shop, then later as foreman for a highway construction team. Married my mother in Santa Clara during the summer he became foreman.
Something lingered at the edge of my mind until I snatched it up, spat it out. "You didn't bring me out here to shoot deer," I said, a little surprised that's what I sensed. But hearing it aloud sounded true.
When he looked at me, I noticed gaps between his teeth like those I'd had before three years of braces. He wasn't bad-looking, but his hair was the color of damp sand and his eyes were too bright for his face. This man was a stranger, for Chrissake.
"Maybe I did mean to, at first. But I've got to tell you something you're not going to like," he said, and then he laughed, caught in a memory. "Did you know that as a baby, if you didn't like what we fed you, you'd spit it out and starve rather than eat? You'd make this face that could scare a ghost. God, you were a tough little rascal."
I didn't want to hear this.
He sighed, then said, "Well, I don't know how to tell you this, Toby," he said, not frowning but rather he seemed prepared to frown. "There's no money."
The mist started up again, wetting his reddened mouth, pooling in the inch-long sickle that scarred his under-chin.
"It wasn't as much money as you'd think. And it's all gone now. I'm really sorry and I meant to tell you right off, but I wanted to, I don't know, spend some time with my boy. Finally having something to offer someone made me miss you so much I thought I was going crazy."
I felt invigorated by adrenaline. The fight or flight reflex had kicked into overdrive. He was broke and he lied to me. He was a liar. In addition to all the shitty things he'd done to me, to my mother, to everyone who'd ever known him, he was this. A liar.
"What are you trying to say?"
He wouldn't meet my gaze. A cloud of crows burst into the sky behind him, startled by our loud voices.
"You know," he said.
"No. I don't know. You tell me."
I don't like him, Arlene had said. I don't like him.
"I don't know what to say. I'm a weak man. So much money, it just fell into my lap all at once. What could I do?"
And the angrier I got, the more I understood. This man before me wasn't any more of a father to me than the guy who delivers our mail, the cork-nosed geezer who cuts chops at the market. But realizing all this didn't make it any more okay.
I cracked him one right in the kisser.
He stumbled back, hand massaging his jaw. "I suppose I deserve that. But can you just get past this? I'm you father, for Pete's sake—"
And that's when I cracked him again, a sucker punch that knocked the wind out of him. Red-faced and moaning, he must've thought I was going to kill him or something—and I admit I was hotter than I'd ever been in my life and likely my face showed it—because he snatched up his rifle, though he didn't point it at me. My rifle still was slung over my shoulder. I left it there.
"You don't understand," he said slowly, as if forming each word with his now-sore jaw gave him great pain.
"No. I don't," I said. I started to walk away. I couldn't believe him.
A bullet chewed into the earth at my feet, kicking up a clod of dirt. I stopped moving. He'd shot at me. My father just fired a gun at me. I turned slowly to look at him and there he was in all his hapless glory, staring at the gun cradled in his arms as if it had somehow betrayed him, taken control and fired itself. As if this weapon—like everything else in his sad life—had screwed him over.
"Ohmigod," he said mechanically. Then he looked at me. "I didn't mean—"
"Stop." I cut him off, not even caring anymore what our biological connection was. A door slammed shut inside of me, and just like that, it was over.
My father moved towards me, arms wide as if in supplication, begging. The rifle remained forgotten in his left hand.
"There was another woman. But she's gone now and I don't have a goddamn thing in this world except you."
In the ashen, unflattering light of the dead of afternoon, he looked sick, his skin creamy-pale. I felt sorry for him, that's how I felt. Selfish and untrustable. Someone I never wanted to see again.
"I can't let you just leave," he said, the words so pathetic they had to be true. And that's when it clicked, for both of us. We stood there staring at each other in total absorption of the moment. Unlike most of the times in people's lives, we cupped our hands so the seconds couldn't thread through our fingers like water, lost forever. In this moment, we came to some understanding about who and what we were. We both wanted something so out of our grasp that it was laughable to even try, but we were that foolish, that hopelessly caught up in the web of events and passions and roads-almost-taken.
I'm sure I didn't realize all this consciously at the time and I'd have bet he didn't either, but rather we just knew as if by instinct that something powerful was occurring, something that forever linked us in a way that felt awkward, like a terrible blood secret.
"Here. God knows you probably can't afford this, either," I said, then unshouldered the Winchester he'd loaned me, threw it at his feet, and I headed west, towards the road we'd driven up on, hearing the report of the shot that would end my life every second, every step. This man was going to kill me and I didn't care—I couldn't spend another moment in his presence.
Only he didn't fire.
The trees were thicker that way and underbrush worked hard to prevent me from making progress, but I could've walked through brick walls, I was so through with him.
"Hey! There's nothing that way but forest for miles. It'll take you hours to reach a house," he called. "Please."
Something about the pitch of his voice gave me pause. I turned slowly and looked back to where I'd thought we'd argued, but when I turned, he wasn't there. Whether in my anger I'd walked farther than I realized or something else happened, I don't know. I stared at the emptiness between the trees and felt myself being swallowed by the growing dusk. He was wrong—there was a Greyhound station a half-dozen miles back. I'd seen on the way in and I wouldn't have cared if it had been twenty-six miles.
It was Saturday, just after six in the afternoon; it was the third and last time I ever saw my father.
• • •
Arlene must've sensed it. She didn't say a word but just patted the spot on the couch next to her. I gave her a faint smile and excused myself to go get a drink. I'd have thought I'd have wanted to throttle her silly for not telling me about the hospital and giving me the silent treatment for so long, but seeing her there in front of me just made it all fade to the back of my mind, a memory so ephemeral that one puff could blow it to the four winds.
In the fridge was a six-pack of Heineken. A truce. Arlene knew I knew. How couldn't she? I cracked one open and drank deep. I went back into the living room and sank beside her on the couch. I ruffled her hair with my fingers, for the first time in a long while not wishing I could kiss those lips or press her to me but rather just being satisfied to be there with her, sitting in the dark without anywhere else to be.
"Is it over?" she asked, after a few long moments.
"Like it never began."
The way I saw it, my father wasn't a bad man—just someone who'd lost hold for no apparent reason, looked up one day and found himself in the very situation he'd promised himself he'd never be in. His life had gone unaccountably wrong. I don't hate him for that.
Arlene kissed me full on the lips, and I didn't care about anything but that kiss, a lovely wind-chime of motion, such musical warmth, a susurrus of pure passion.
And then she cried. Feeling Arlene sob in my arms like my mother once did when I was fifteen reminded me sharply of how pain blossomed like a dark flower in someone's heart. My father damaged my mother in ways I can never fully appreciate, and for this, never will he have my forgiveness. Not in twenty years, not it twenty lifetimes. My father wanted to be part of my life and ironically enough, there he is, lodged in my memory like an old wound never entirely healed. There is that.
And so we sat there, Arlene and I, both of us thinking about the things we wanted out of our lives and neither of us pretending that we weren't. It was like a silent conversation where our thoughts intermingled and for a moment, the connection was as pure as anything, more high-powered and true than fiber-optic cables. We sat like this for hours, long into the night, just Arlene and me, neither of us wanting to be the one to break the spell for the other.
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