Fathers see things tattooed deep within, all that is wrong with you. And they see the good, too, things that are subtle, because they are always searching, always trying to find out why you are the way you are.
Photo via Flickr user Phyllis Buchanan
He wants to know where you’re going. The undefined, metaphoric where: Where is your life going? But also the literal where: Why are you taking this bridge? Why are you in this lane? Why is your seat reclined so much? He wouldn’t be going this way. He wants you to know that. Because he went this way once, and now he’s working for a guy who has a Kings of Leon song as his ringtone and practices karate moves in the office hallways and laughs at the speech impediment of the guy selling hot dogs outside the building. Don’t you understand? He doesn’t say any of this, but it’s implied in the silence. He sighs and bites his nail while he waits for your answer. You don’t really have one, except to say you’re trying to figure it out. You change lanes, and he pays for the toll.
He is drawn to absolutes, comforted by their rigid structure. He measures life in growth and decay. Things are built from nothing, pieced together, and when they don’t work any longer they are torn down and forgotten. He watches documentaries on underwater tunnels connecting two countries and decisive military campaigns and epidemics that decimate populations and foliage. Things that are giant and unstoppable, efficient, nothing wasted, every bullet accounted for, winners and losers and conclusions. Abstractions are excuses, equivocations, bullshit. You are stalling. You either have a job or you don’t have a job, and if you don’t have one you should get one, a real one, one with benefits, one during the daytime.
He has vendettas against time, against signs of entropy. Against the squirrels that eat from his bird feeder, the concept of pitch counts, global warming, text messaging, the price of windshield-wiper blades, Republicans. Against the guy who changed his oil, and the memory of his father, who knew how to change his own oil. He revels in not giving a fuck. It is sincere but also a performance, an expression of earned indignity. It is liberating. Who’s going to stop me now? So at emptying dinner tables his voice rises about the septic tank, the grass that won’t grow, the existence of The Biggest Loser, the size of Apple’s earbuds, a charcoal grill that takes forever to start, what he’s going to do with all these leftovers, a mother who can’t make it up the stairs on her own anymore. There is wisdom coupled with a stubbornness to brazenly disregard it. So he spins his empty glass on the table, not talking to anyone in particular now, just out loud, to the world, to himself, to a generation that has its back turned to him.
Sometimes he just decides to not shave for a week. He goes to the supermarket to pick up a thing of Entenmann’s in a sweatshirt he got for renewing a magazine subscription, gym shorts covered in Spackle dust, Kohl’s sandals, and black socks pulled halfway up his calves. And then he’ll load the dishwasher and investigate noises coming from inside the walls with the focus of someone analyzing ballistics reports under fluorescent lights. He is an expert at prioritizing his frustrations with society. The crusades of his youth have become tolerated injustices. With age he yields to a sort of pragmatism. Or Cheers reruns. It is not always intentional; mostly he is just tired. He falls asleep watching infomercials for steak knives with his hands under his underwear elastic.
Photo via Flickr user Wayne MacPhail
There are moments when you realize he can die. You are forced to acknowledge this. You are startled by the bluntness of his physical deterioration. It lifts you by the shirt collar and slams you against the ceiling. How he wheezes when he needs his inhaler. How after sitting for too long he walks slightly hunched over, like his joints were made out of aluminum foil, crinkly and unstable. There is a soreness that lingers permanently. He makes a noise clearing his throat that sounds like a cross between a rusty band saw, a secret passage opening in an ancient tomb, and a T. rex with a migraine. He doesn’t remember which day you called. He doesn’t know where the phone is or if he’s seen this episode or what that guy’s name is, that one, the one from the thing.
But he splits firewood barefooted and drives from Michigan to Connecticut, overnight, on four hours of sleep. He spits out the window of a moving vehicle that he is operating while cramming his foot into his shoes and finishes eating the bowl of cantaloupe between his legs at stoplights. And he remembers taking you to the Laundromat to play arcade games when the house lost power. The name of the prostitute his neighbor used to visit. Lou Brock’s batting average in 1968. His father shouting at him from underneath a Cadillac with a cigar nub the size of a grape pinched between his lips.
Eventually you understand fathers are real people—not merely devices, chauffeurs, makers of mediocre pork chops, and occasional hockey players. When you are little they are parade floats. They are action figures. But they are flawed and weird and undeniably yours, and you realize this now. They are desperate, empathetic human beings who fuck up sometimes but worry—even when you aren’t there, when they’re hovering over the sink eating cold ravioli from the colander—about your turning into something. Evolving. Refining. They see things tattooed deep within, all that is wrong with you: your ambivalence about your future, your feelings of inadequacy, the dread that lurks in every empty moment. And they see the good in you, things that are subtle, because they are always searching, always trying to find the reason, the impulse, why you are the way you are.
Photo via Flickr user Dillan K
His influence manifests itself in different ways, from the slight to the profound. You wipe your fingers on your socks when you’re out of napkins like he taught you. You remind people of him, they say. To you this means you are cynical, compulsive, and you have a big nose. They don’t mean it that way. You publicly resent the comparisons and privately embrace them.
Your relationship is marked by conversations you’ve had in moments of isolation. Backyards, garages, drives home. Many, many drives home. You’re riding in the passenger seat with takeout on your lap now; he is a man, you are not, and between you is a vast gulf, something immense that separates you from him, something to cross but also something to stand and behold—where you are and where he wants you to be. You talk about lots of things, but really they are about the same thing; the banal is just evidence that can be included in the larger thesis of How It All Works. He is trying to be a father like you are trying to be a son. It is dark. He is driving. He condenses your life into a single sentence, and he asks you why it is this way. He lowers the volume on the radio, and now there is just static and faint murmurs. It is a rhetorical question, you think; he only wants you to flail in the immediacy of this crisis, to confront it on your own. But he is really asking you: What are you doing? Where are you going? You try to answer, and he keeps turning the knob. It is at zero, there is no sound, but he keeps turning it, like the noise is distracting you, like he can control all the noises that surround you. He is trying to help you. He is always trying to help you. So you sit there, together, in the red light of the dashboard, not knowing what to say, waiting to get out and go inside.
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