“Mom,” I whisper, not wanting to disturb her. I look down at my hands, fingernails falling off, flaking, like a candle struck by a fork. Skin, soft skin, nail, falling off piece by piece.
“I think something is wrong, mom.” I ease my way into the den. Soft steps sneak carefully past the dark mahogany dining table covered in stacks and stacks of old magazines and newspapers. My body leaves a trail of feathery finger flakes along the way.
“Mom, my hands,” I start, louder this time. They’re peeling away to the knuckles, bone and all. Her face doesn’t turn away from the small antenna TV.
“Can’t you see I’m trying to watch the news, boy?” She doesn’t look at me, she never did. My wrists are nubs now. I try to trace my fingers across my cheek. The pile of skin flecks begins to mount an offensive, rising up into the shape of a rodent, an abomination gnawing angrily at my feet.
I had this dream a lot when I was younger.
Car Accident Leaves Child Dead, Teachers Mute
Seven years later, it happened for the first time.
He was a year older than I was, and we had never spoken. They said that he was in a car, passenger’s seat, when his brother veered off of the road and smashed into a tree. The car was found wrapped around the wooden trunk, hugging the base with both arms. I imagined that he never saw it coming. I always thought you weren’t supposed to know when you died. I wasn’t sure if that was better or not.
The teachers gave handouts to all of the students the following morning. None of them spoke about it, they just handed out the pale-blue sheets like flyers. A robin’s egg, the earth from outer space. We had an extra long moment of silence that day.
“Mom.” I walked into her room the very next day. “I think I’m depressed.” The words came out, rehearsed in a mirror.
Her walls were made of moth wings, her bed frame constructed from petrified sand harvested off of a crowded beach.
She opened her eyes, hazelnuts in a sea of almond butter.
“Oh, sweetie.” She rubbed her eyes as she spoke. “Me too.” She turned over into the covers, an envelope of silt. I hadn’t expected the words to bounce back at me like they had earlier off of the mirror in the cramped and messy bathroom.
“Talk to me when you’ve got real problems.”
Local Hero Drowns in River, Saves No One
The next time wasn’t so bad, either. He was in my world history class, I think, and he never ever showed up. Classmates called him lazy and stupid. He seemed totally useless, until he fell into the river and was carried downstream.
This time, he must have known. He must have felt what it was like to be carried by the water, the immediate loss of control. He had to feel the water trickling into his lungs, sloshing around, a half-empty jug of milk. He knew that he was going to die.
They put notes and flowers at the empty desk that had always been empty anyway.
I still don’t understand how people change when they die. It seems to me that everyone is someone, but also, another.
I never learned how to swim. You would think that I’d try.
New Barbie Worries Consumers, Investors
This one was different. We started talking in English class. I sat behind her every day and her hair would flow down the back of her neck and onto my desk. It lay there, and I would some day muster up the courage to touch it. When I finally did, something changed inside me. She lit a candle in a dark crawlspace, and the air became thick with smoke and heat. You couldn’t stay in there long, but when you did, it was warm, and it was bright.
The next year we switched, and she sat behind me. She traced her fingers down my spine and giggled while she drew hieroglyphics between the margins of my shoulder blades. Her nails were more precise than any stylus. Her illustrations were, if not on the desk of Da Vinci, then surely in his top drawer.
She had taught me the value of art and, more importantly, the importance of using art to impress women. Each day I read a little closer. I started to write poems, not to her, but for her. I read every line of every book as if she was watching.
The final year had arrived, and I decided that I was going to talk to her. “I’m coming over,” I said as we walked out of class, the first of the year. “I’m coming over today.”
I kissed her neck while she played piano. I wondered if she was using art for the same purpose that I was. I wondered if maybe she’d had a crush, another boy, who loved the sound of music. When I asked her, she said it was she who loved the melodies, and it was herself whom she was trying to convince of love.
“When was the last time you talked to her?”
She had been crushed by a box truck while merging onto the interstate, her soon to be father-in-law in the passenger seat. We had been long past our romance, and she had just gotten engaged to the down-to-earth guy from Kansas that she had told me about at our last supper in the shopping strip Mexican restaurant.
“Well, did you hear the news?” Clearly, I had not heard the news. I wished, in that moment, that I could cancel the news, permanently. But the news does not stop because you ask it to. So I spent my first spring break home from college at the wake, but not the funeral, and not the burial. I didn’t own any black ties.
They talked about how she hadn’t felt any pain, that she was at peace now. I stood up amidst the pews and tried to change the channel.
Local Woman Missing, Police Apathetic
I searched for her along the sides of railroad tracks late at night, walking along an infinite path carved by the power of industry so many years ago. I searched for her in drywall, and on the other side of mirrors, and on the inside of the skin on my knuckles. Red and white marble, shiny with ink.
I checked on the inside of cigarettes, hundreds of them. I checked inside the mouths of a dozen pretty girls with short hair and long stories.
I pushed my fingers, one by one, between the caverns of my ribcage. I tore open my chest like a nectarine and sucked all of the juices that came out. Afterwards, I pushed the sides back together and wrapped myself in shoestring.
I laid in bed, completely still, and tried to feel the 1,000 mile-per-hour rotation of the earth on its axis.
The Interview, Pt. 2
“College gets easier.” My mother informed me of this on during on of our ever-nurturing phone calls. I could feel my teeth wriggling loose inside my head. “These are the best years of your life, so you shut up and enjoy it. I tried to pull one out.
A brown recluse stuck in his own web, I haven’t left bed in weeks.
“Just get something to eat. I’ll send you some money for groceries.” I’ll just drink some orange juice, I think. That will stop the dreams.
This was the ninth day in a row that I’d decided not to rise from my tomb of pillows and blankets.
0-9, I thought to myself.
Investors Delusional, Market Despondent
Eventually, winters started getting easier. I decided I was happy that I never went to see that doctor, no matter what the pre-screenings said.
I went home to spend more than just Christmas day with my family. My grandfather was sitting on the couch, sunken, a crab in the sand. I even sat down and watched TV with him.
My mom came in and sat down next to me and stared ahead silently. My mother was the extraordinary type of person who never really listened to anything at all. I imagined her death would come slowly, but that it would still catch her by surprise.
“Did you hear the news?” The waitress spoke, standing above my table at the restaurant. I laid the words out on the tablecloth and read them over and over again.
“No,” I said. “I didn’t hear anything.”
He was another from the English class, a friend. Somebody I didn’t mind doing group projects with. He played the trumpet every day, until one day he faded, like a resonant tonic whose performer simply ran out of power.
She told me he leapt from a bridge that towered over the interstate. Falling, a star into an ocean of endless black.
She asked me if I was going to the funeral. I told her no, I wasn’t. She scoffed and dropped off another lemonade.
I got up and walked over to the television, pulled off the antenna, and tried to snap it in half. The rod bent, twisted, but wouldn’t break. I took my teeth to it, they ripped themselves out in bunches, handfuls. I took my nails to it, clawed at it. They broke off like bottle caps, my skin rubbed raw against the metal exterior.
The news does not stop because you ask it to.
High off a combination of gas station wine and cheap weed, Cayden and I parked peacefully on an empty hillside, glassy eyes facing west through a haze of smoke and steam. I held the skinny brown joint between my fingers, tapping off the ash with rose-painted fingertips. Staring out into the cotton candy sunset, we smoked and kissed, smoked and kissed, puffing, puffing, passing.
“This one’s my favorite,” she said. “Look, it’s exactly the color of your eyes.”
It was Arbor Day, April 29th, and she had just gotten me a small wooden box, the interior of which was lined with a handful of colorful Venezuelan bills. The notes came in a variety of shades, each more vibrant than the last. Cayden didn’t believe in holidays, at least not the way most people do, and she decided when we started dating that we would get each other presents only on the lesser-known celebrations, and that they had to be surprises.
She handed me a bill of the Venezuelan money and pointed to the bottom where a deep shade of teal bolstered the majestic head of a woman I’d never seen before.
“My eyes aren’t that blue,” I said.
“Yeah they are.” She grabbed my chin and turned my face towards hers. “Let me see.”
I looked back at her face, a galaxy of freckles orbiting freely around two bright stars. Her eyes were rich emeralds woven through a stream of soft, dark sepia. Mint chocolate chip, that’s what I called them when we first started dating.
Cayden leaned across the gearshift and kissed me. I could feel the smile on her lips as they pressed against mine.
“Pretty girl,” she said as our lips parted. “It’s called a Bolivar Fuerte,” Cayden said, trying her best to accurately portray the currency’s native accent. She picked up the box. “And look, Ell, she’s beautiful.”
The woman on the bill, who we later found out was Josefa Camejo, a brave Columbian revolutionary, stared out and over towards the same vibrant terrain that we did. She looked to be full of hope. Not a hope that was built upon wishes, but a hope of which she’d had a direct responsibility for. She was proud of a future that she knew she might not get to see.
“A beautiful woman,” I said.
“Not as beautiful as mine, though.” She reached across the center console and grabbed my hand, our fingers dancing around one another for some time before finally landing comfortably interwoven. She pulled her hand away slowly before grabbing the box and throwing it into the glove compartment.
I followed her pale, slender fingers with my eyes as they made their way up my thigh and into the polka-dotted sundress that hung loosely on my skin. She took her other hand off of the glove box, pulled a dandelion out of her auburn locks, and pushed it into the hair over my ear.
We made love there with the windows open, our fingers following the rich smell of pine as it showered over our bodies. The sunset massaged our glowing skin.
* * * * *
The first time my parents moved, I remember saying goodbye to everything in the house. The tall lamps that bent at the neck, lurching over you as you walked in through the foyer; the mismatch assortment of furniture, my favorite of which was a bright yellow love seat whose fabric changed colors with each caress of your hand; the faux-mahogany blinds that only seemed to direct the sun’s rays towards your eyes as you watched cartoons each morning before school. There was no one thing that I would miss more than the others.
By the fourth move, the farewells were replaced instead with shy eye contact at most, the way that you pass by an ex-boyfriend in the hallway. Eyes forward, head straight, without even giving them a glance. I had the immense feeling, the knowledge that fills you with heat from the inside, that things would never stick to me the way that they once did.
It was in that last house, planted in the middle of acres and acres of rich Virginia farmland, that my mother died. The cancer seemed to eat away at her very being, piece by piece, until there was hardly anything left to put inside the casket.
My father spoke dry-eyed at the wake, and his steady hands patted my mother’s picture at the burial. I resent him for it to this day. It is this, the strangest facet of masculinity that does not allow boys to feel, to truly understand sadness, that eventually lead me to a resentment of all men.
Two months later, I met Cayden in the back alley of an all-day breakfast diner, smoking weed out of an apple.
* * * * *
It was May 22nd, Harvey Milk Day, when I first started to notice that something was wrong.
I had just bought Cayden a set of jigsaw puzzles based on vintage horror movie posters. If there was anyone else in the world that Cayden may have been in love with, it was Boris Karloff. We sat down on the floor of her living room and started working on Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” but when Cayden went to put the final jigsaw in to complete Boris’ left eyeball, she missed by about two inches.
We both laughed, but as she went to pick the piece up and try again, she missed, her hand careening into the small portion of the puzzle that we had already completed. She sat there in astonishment for a moment before squeezing her eyes shut and placing her hand on her head.
“Cay?” I said. “What is it?”
“It’s fine, this happens sometimes.” She began massaging the side of her temple. “Shit, it hurts, Ellie.”
“How long has this been going on?”
She slid her arm along the ground, pushing the puzzle pieces aside as she eased down into my lap.
“A few weeks, I think. It isn’t always this bad, though.” I could see tears start to fall down her freckled cheek.
Three weeks later, I finally got Cayden to go see a doctor. The date was June 11th, Kamehameha Day, and I asked for my present to be a visit to an eye specialist.
“They’re supposed to be surprises,” she said. Cay was never the type to ask for help, and doctor visits were no different.
“Fine, consider it my gift to you. Surprise, you’re seeing a doctor!” She ran her fingers through my hair before ruffling it playfully.
She took a moment, staring back at me, and looked as though she was trying to focus on something but couldn’t.
“Fine,” she said. “Only for you, pretty girl.”
Later that day, we sat hand in hand in the waiting room flipping through pages and pages of healthcare brochures for what felt like an eternity.
Eventually, nurse came out through the swinging door that leads to the back of the practice. She stepped into the waiting room. Her face was soft, her thin lips ever-so parted. She had eyes that receded deep within their sockets. Her pupils were almonds hidden in a pocket of bronze. I smiled at her as I walked by.
“It’s called open-angle glaucoma. Basically, the internal fluid behind your eyes isn’t draining properly, creating intense pressure on the inside of your eye and damaging your optic nerves.”
The doctor spoke to us both in the examination room. An older man, his words were as soft as his wrinkled cheeks. Once he finished speaking, the doctor stood there for a moment, leaning heavily on the pristine examination room counter.
“Okay, so treatment, right? There’s treatment for this kind of thing.” I spoke for Cay who sat there silently. A very rare occasion.
“Well, yes, but only to a point. Plenty of people have some level of glaucoma for a very long time without ever seeing symptoms.” Cayden’s hands rushed to her temple while the doctor spoke. “And Cayden here has been showing physical symptoms for some time now. Her vision has diminished significantly since her last appointment, which according to our records was nearly five years ago. We have medication that we can use to try to reduce the blockage, but much of the nerve damage is already done. It may only be a matter of time before you begin to notice even more substantial vision impairment. It’s likely that you will lose your vision completely.”
I looked back at the doctor and wondered what he must have looked like when he was younger. I thought again about the male nurse who escorted us from the waiting room. Cayden’s hand clenched my own and would not let go. I imagined that it was hers.
It was the summer solstice, June 20th. There were no gifts on this day, only the curse of seemingly endless daylight.
Cayden took a long hit from a freshly rolled joint, letting the smoke roll out of her lips in billows before quickly inhaling it back in through her nose.
“Isn’t this stuff supposed to be good for you?” she asked, her words restricted as she held back a breath.
“What, the weed?”
“Yeah,” she said. “This is like, prescription medication for glaucoma. I should be able to see through walls by now.” Cayden passed the joint as she exhaled contentedly.
I pursed my lips, pressing them against the butt of the joint. Cayden was right, I thought as the smoke filled the inside of my mouth. It seemed appropriate that my girlfriend would be a medical anomaly. I thought about what I had been doing to self-medicate, and how it probably wouldn’t matter in the end either.
“You mean you can’t see through walls,” I asked. She brought her mouth towards mine, motioning for me to shotgun the smoke into her own mouth. She pressed our lips together before looking me up and down.
“I promise that I would only use my x-ray vision for good,” she said. I couldn’t help but notice the irony of Cayden losing even her not-so-super powers, and still yearning for something greater. That was just like her, and that was once a reason that I loved her. Now, it simply felt like a reminder of the injustice of it all. I let the smoke roll out between my lips just like Cayden had and tried to inhale it into my nose. Sadly, I only ended up blowing it into my eyes, burning them.
“What is it like?” I asked her.
“Well, it’s a lot like normal vision, except for when you focus really hard, you can see behind stuff.”
“You know what I mean.” Her humor started to have less and less charm.
“I don’t really know how to describe it,” Cayden said. “It’s kind of like when your foot falls asleep, and you don’t really notice it until you try to move it. You almost forget that it’s happening, until you try to do something that used to be so easy and you realize that you can’t.”
On July 24th, Pioneer Day, we stepped flat-footed along the shore of a filthy, polluted river, our bikini-clad bodies reflecting the sun’s light out onto the waterway of grey. The water ebbed with very little enthusiasm. Its only decoration was a myriad of plastic bags and mostly empty beer cans.
Cayden had just gotten me a skimpy black bikini covered in pink polka dots.
“I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to see, but I want to enjoy the view while I’m here,” she said to me as I opened the thin white cardboard box that morning. She began to joke more and more about her loss of vision, even describing her walking cane as “kinky” when she bought it in the pharmacy section of the supermarket.
Cayden had read in a magazine from that same pharmacy that the best way to spice up your sex life was to incentivize it. So, for the past two weeks, we’ve been playing strip-trivia with fun facts about ourselves to see how well we know each other. I am always the one who ends up naked.
On the beach, she walked with her fingers wrapped around my arm and I guided her, the water covering our ankles as we strolled along the riverside.
“The beach, it smells yellow,” Cayden said. “It’s a yellow sort of day.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“It’s called synesthesia. Apparently some people can take impressions from one sense, say, smell, and use it to stimulate another sense, like sight.” She kissed me gently on the shoulder and inhaled deeply as she did.
“See, you smell blue right now. I’m trying to do it with colors.”
“You’re trying to smell colors?” I said. “Isn’t that the kind of thing that people are just born with?”
“Well usually, I think, yeah. But maybe if I practice hard enough…I know it won’t replace my vision, but it will be nice to still see something.” Her head leaned over against my arm and her hands grabbed my bicep tighter.
With her eyes shut, her face was no longer a galaxy; It was one planet riddled with craters and stains. The splotches seemed newly still, docile. Suddenly, the spark of realization caught flame deep inside my belly.
“This is bullshit,” I said. She stopped in her tracks and her eyes shot open, staring forward, empty and hollow.
“What do you mean, Ell?”
“How are we even going to do this?” I ripped my arm out from her hands, her fingers hung there like they were nothing but bones, devoid of flesh or blood.
“What are you talking about? Are you trying to make this about you?” She took a step back, nearly stumbling over her own feet.
“No.” I paused. “I’m sorry.”
But I was making it about me, and I didn’t know how to stop.
I wondered how people could feel more sad for others than they did for themselves. I wondered if that was why my father never cried, and why I hadn’t cried since the funeral. I wanted to hold Cayden’s hand and, with the little vision that she had left, say goodbye to all of the things in this world that she would never see again. I wanted to say goodbye to all the parts of her that I would never see again. But instead, I just kept walking past, eyes forward, head straight, and didn’t even give them a glance.
By October, Cayden had lost her vision completely. Over the past few months, I would sit for hours with her and help her “practice” her synesthesia. For Yom Kippur, I bought her a box of colored fruits: blood oranges, yellow apples, those tiny green bananas. We sat parked on the side of a hill with me in the driver’s seat while I tested her abilities.
“Here, try this one,” I said, handing her a corner piece of a yellow watermelon. She inhaled the fruit deeply, keeping her eyes open as she did.
“This is a watermelon,” she said.
“Okay, but what color is it?” She took a series of small sniffs, working her way around the rind before biting a large chunk out of it.
“Well, it’s delicious,” she said.
“Hey, that’s cheating!” We laughed as she tried to shove the rest of the piece into her mouth. I watched the amber juices flow down her chin.
“Are you afraid?” I asked. She shut her eyes.
“Sometimes I’m afraid that I’ll forget.” I looked back at her while she talked, her bubblegum lips moving only slightly with each word.
“I don’t think that you ever forget the things worth remembering.” She opened her eyes when I finished speaking. Once my favorite flavor of ice cream, they stared emptily past me, out and over the horizon. Cayden looked on towards a future that she would absolutely never see. I wondered if I was really the one who would forget. She leaned in to kiss me.
“Pretty girl,” she said as our lips came apart.
“There are so many things about you to remember,” she answered after a moment. “What happens if I lose one?” A trickle of tears flowed down her face, each another drop of melting mint and chocolate.
I closed my eyes and tried my best to feel the colors on the inside, the way that Cayden did. I leaned into her, pressed my lips against her cheek, and inhaled deeply, waiting for a wash of hues to roll over me the way that I could feel the pine trees and the sunset when we first made love, high, parked hillside.
But they never did, and I knew that one by one, piece by piece, I would lose those colors just as Cayden did.
Since before we moved houses, that old polaroid has been sitting there, beside my mother’s bed, for as long as I can remember. I try not to look at it when I walk into her room, the walls yellow with cigarette smoke. And even after she has shown it to me, I can never seem to remember his face.
It’s blurred out, censored as if he had never signed the consent to release form. A waiver, which I have to assume, was completely ignored, as my father wanted to keep his identity a mystery. This mystery, one that I was completely disinterested in ever attempting to solve, was one whose answers were not arrived at through games of “Guess Who” that were played at the tables of the bargain-basement daycare with the mean kids that played street hockey.
But I know it is not my memory that’s failed me. Because I remember in vivid remark that day, the last time that I saw my father, in the barbershop parking lot. I recall with grave distinction the look on his face before he dragged my mother out of the car by her hair, pounding her jaw against the hood of the white Ford Explorer. I remember when the ambulance came, and the beautiful EMT worker told me that my mother just had “a little booboo, like that one,” as she pointed to a mark on my arm that was, distinctly, not a booboo. I’ve been told that I couldn’t look at my mother for months, scarred, stitched, and flattened into an oblong disfigurement. My heart, like her jaw, was completely broken. And I could never look at my father again.
So, I censor it in my mind, like explicit language in a made-for-television movie, because it does not belong there. And after fifteen years, when my mother asks me where that old polaroid that’s been sitting beside her bed since before we moved houses has gone, I tell her that I do not know.
“For the record, I think this is a terrible idea.” My mother spoke, leaning up against one of the posts that held up our white wraparound porch. My mother was, just as the porch suggests, a self-sufficient woman. Her lessons were fairly direct; stand up straight when you walk, always look another man in the eye. She tried her best to fill the void of things that a boy is “supposed” to learn from his father. Naturally, there were still some holes, even all these years later.
“Yeah, I do what I want now, Ma. I’m a grown man!” I said, jokingly. She put up fisticuffs to my response and pretended to box with me as I walked up the two stairs of the front porch and grabbed my last duffle bag.
“Pay some goddamn bills then, you’re such a grown man.”
“I do everything else around here,” I replied. “You’ve got to do something to hold your weight.” She full on tackled me against the car door before giving me a big mom-hug.
“You be safe,” she said, opening the door to my sun-faded 1998 sedan. “And don’t let that bastard scam you out of any of my money!”
“Hey, I resent that terminology,” I said. I put the car in reverse, and made my way out of the driveway. I could see the flood of tears start streaming down her face as I shifted into drive, changing gears into the sudden realization that one way or another, I was not coming back the same.
* * * *
So, when you get your name changed, you have to write a letter of intent. They ask you what it is that has lead to this change, and if you’re positive that you’d like to permanently alter your identity. You know, heavy stuff.
It wasn’t that I needed his approval, or anything like that. I had done pretty well without it so far. It was just that sharing the same last name (and that stupid middle name) may have actually meant something to him at one time, even if for just a small moment. On the other hand, maybe it never meant anything. But either way, it was worth finding out.
So, on October 17th, the day after my eighteenth birthday, I decided that I would make the incredibly flat, mostly uninteresting drive up the coast of the mid-Atlantic from the suburban haven of northern Florida to the slums of southern New Jersey where, in some overcrowded city hospital I had been born to my unmarried parents and named Samuel Rovert Cash, and tell my father that I would no longer be keeping his namesake.
“Thou, nature, art my goddess,” I recited the speech aloud, memorizing it for my literature class. “To thy law my services are bound.”
Come the Georgia border, I had already resorted to performing Shakespeare for entertainment. I think that I was hoping for some type of spiritual awakening, but instead I found myself very much having to pee without a single sign of civilization on southern country roads.
“Now gods, stand up for bastards.”
The autumn leaves at the apex of falling created a swirling portal through which my front windshield was hurled. I told my mom before I left that I would pull over whenever I was going to call her; once when I got past the Florida state line, and once when I was halfway to my destination. This would likely be somewhere near the border of the southern half of the colonial mid-Atlantic, some place where they maintain polished bronze statues erected to commemorate American Civil War heroes. You know, the “State-Sponsored Racism” belt.
She told me that getting through Georgia would take the longest, that the Carolinas would have the prettiest highways, that Virginia has more cops than it does exit signs, and that the rest was just tolls and skinny states with tall cities that smell like smoke and sweat. She also told me before I left that we had been fine without my father so far, so I should never feel like I owed him anything.
She was right about almost all of it.
I knew from just as early as I could understand anything that it wasn’t my mother’s fault that she couldn’t fill that void. It was something that was impossible, a game set up with no way for her to win. There would always be holes, gaping and hollow, through which the wind would pass and remind me that I was not a traditional child and I had not come from a traditional family. Instances would slip through these holes, like how to change a tire, or how to shoot a basketball, and they would echo around in my brain for as long as they deemed appropriate. At a certain point, you grow numb to all the noise.
* * * * *
“Do you know fast you were going, son?” I had been pulled over for going eight miles-per-hour over the speed limit on the interstate. I was, perhaps, the only person to ever get a speeding ticket while in cruise control.
“Don’t call me son,” I muttered under my breath as I reached to grab my wallet.
“What was that?” the officer asked.
“Oh, I said, yes, sir. I believe I was going about 78. I was in cruise control, I’m not in a rush.” I spoke with some anxiety, having never once been pulled over before.
“Well, I clocked you going a bit more like 80. Now, I don’t know what the laws are down in Florida, but in Virginia anything over 80 gets you a reckless ticket and an additional fine.” The officer spoke with both hands on his belt, presumably to hold his pants up from the weight of extra ego that was left in his pockets.
He wrote me a ticket, and clocked me at 79 miles per hour. Turns out I had to be more worried about the state of Virginia taking my mom’s money that I had to be about my father doing it.
At 10 o clock that night, I reached the underwhelming city of Woodbury, New Jersey. I would stay with my grandfather that night, the father of my mother, and come morning I would take the remaining 25-minute trek to where, at least to our collective knowledge, my father still lived.
“Sam,” my grandpa yelled from behind the rusted screen door. “Park in the road. I’ve got work early.”
My grandfather was not a subtle man, and I expected nothing less out of his welcome. Working his entire life, he had recently reached the ripe old age of 75, a prime age to finally go ahead and retire. Unfortunately, my grandfather lived alone now, and never quite seemed to figure out how not to work. So, after the construction company had given him a forced retirement, he tried (and failed) at a handful of odd jobs to keep himself busy. Most recently, after falling asleep last month behind the wheel of a Philadelphia city transit bus and crashing into a parked Volkswagen, he decided that he would at least take work that didn’t put the lives of civilians directly into his dark and wrinkled hands.
“Unlike some people in this family, grandpa still works,” he mumbled under his breath as he turned away, leaving the screen door unlocked.
The house was very much different than I recalled. After my father left, we were forced to move in with my grandfather. As I walked through the foyers and unused dining rooms, I felt the eerie death of childhood memories. The creaky floorboards that I had once toddled on still sounded. The ceiling of my old bedroom, paint still torn and chipped away, didn’t make any of the same imaginative shapes that I observed as a child, concocting stories from them when I couldn’t sleep.
I walked back down the stairs to see grandpa on the couch watching a basketball game and drinking non-alcoholic beer. He had given up real drinking a long time ago, after his second wife left.
“How are the Sixers looking this year?” I asked as I sat down on the opposite end of the couch.
“Shit.” My grandpa spoke as he finished sipping his beer. “What do you expect when we won’t drop any cash on free agency.”
There was a long pause before my grandpa took another sip of beer. We weren’t close, admittedly, but it was somewhat discomforting that after nearly five years between visits, all that we could manage to talk about was sports. It left me with the thought that meeting with my father could only be even more awkward, and equally as meaningful. Before finishing the next sip, he took a longer drink, finishing off the can before speaking.
“I ain’t seen him in a long time, Sam.” His eyes didn’t turn from the game. “I know I’ve made my mistakes, and I’m not the wisest man, but if you ask me, Trevor was, and will always be, a lowlife and a leech.”
“You’re probably right,” I replied after a moment.
“I remember when you were younger, real young. I’m sure you don’t remember this, but me and your dad took you to the circus. Your ma had begged him and begged him, because she was working and he wasn’t. She gave him the money for the tickets and snacks. She knew how he was, so she asked me to go with you guys.” He sat up, his elbows on his knees, and his head turned down towards the dark wood floors.
“We got there and, man, you would do this thing when you were little, you would say ‘I’m done.’ whenever you were over something. You didn’t know a lot of words, but you knew those two.” He laughed. “You always knew what you wanted. And I mean, it was calm. It was very matter of fact. But your dad took none of that, none whatsoever. He got so angry. It was like he didn’t understand, you were a child, you can’t reason with a little kid. So when you pulled that out there, at the circus, he stood up and he left. He took whatever money was left that your ma had given him and he walked right out. And he used that money and he drove all the way out to where, as far as I know, he’s still at to this very day.”
For the first time since I had arrived, my grandpa put his beer down and looked over at me across the couch.
“Just don’t have no expectations,” he said.
* * * * *
I arrived at the address my mother had given me right around noon. I couldn’t help but imagine that my father would probably be out, perhaps for lunch, perhaps with some gorgeous super model, or, more likely, some sugar mama with whom he had been responsible for the release of an entire flock of eclectic younglings which I would soon feel obligated to call “siblings.”
Upon my arrival to the shanty, my stomach began to twist itself in knots. Rope wrapped around my innards, looping itself around twice, thrice, before aptly knotting into a throbbing cluster of “screw it, I should just bail.”
Before I could even attempt to make good on the idea, out walked a man, stocky, and about five foot eight in height. He was wearing khakis, the universal symbol of business-casual, and a blue button down shirt. The man started to put on a pea coat (it was much colder in New Jersey than it had been in Florida) and was walking towards his car.
“Da-,” I stopped myself. “Trevor?” The word fell out my lips like an extra kernel falls out of an overstuffed popcorn bag.
He turned his head to look at me. He squinted his eyes, adjusting his glasses. “Sam?” he said finally, walking over to me.
“Holy sh-,” his hands dropped to his side. We stood there, the both of us, silently for quite some time. This man, I thought, is half of me. This man in front of me is a part of my creation, an equal fraction of my genesis.
He walked up to me, wrapped his arms around me, and squeezed.
“She let you come up here? All by yourself?” My dad spoke as he drank black coffee out of a beige mug. He decided that he would stay home from work today. Work, which was apparently as a security guard at the Philadelphia International Airport. He worked odd shifts, he said. I was lucky that I caught him.
“Yeah, I mean, she wasn’t the happiest about it,” I replied. “Neither was grandpa.”
“Ron and I never did see eye to eye.” My father spoke, a bit of laughter behind his voice. However, his jovial nature didn’t last long.
“Look, Sam, I’m just happy you’re here. I’m sure you’ve got a lot of questions. But I just want to say first that I love your mother, I always did. I’ve been calling Michelle for years, on Christmas, on your birthday. She won’t ever pick up. And when she does, she damn sure won’t let me talk to you.”
I pushed the eggs around my plate with a fork. There’s something about that rare place that serves all-day breakfast that makes you feel obligated to get it, even if it isn’t the appropriate time for it.
“I never knew that,” I said.
“I didn’t expect that she would tell you. It was…” He paused for a moment, putting more salt on his hash browns. “It was hard. Michelle and I, we tried, we really did. I wanted to be there, I wanted to.” He stopped.
“Then why did you leave?” This time, it was less like popcorn and more like Skittles that you can’t open, so you pull, and you pull, and eventually it tears and there are little colorful hard-shell candies scattered everywhere.
“It’s not that simple, Sam.” He spoke now with more resolve, more intention in his voice. “It never has been. I had my reasons. Your mother isn’t the easiest person to deal with. And her parents, they always hated me.” He stopped for a moment, noticing the over-poured syrup that now drenched his single remaining hotcake. He put down his fork and took a deep breath.
“Look, it was just too hard.” He took a moment to clear his throat. “It was too hard not working, and seeing your mom work like that just to raise you, to support you, and knowing that I had nothing to offer. It was too hard to think that you would grow up, and you would see me, a waste, a parasite, and think that was what a man should be. So I left. And I said that I wouldn’t come back until I was able to stand on my own, and to love myself, and to think enough of myself that I was able to raise a child. And here we are now, 15 years later.”
The tears began to run down my father’s cheeks. And for the first time in my life, I felt sorry for him.
“I don’t know what to say,” I replied.
“You don’t have to say anything. I just want to help you understand.” He answered, grabbing my hand with his and offering me the only thing that I wasn’t able to get for over 15 years: a smile.
“Look, dad. There’s something that I have to tell you,” I said as we walked outside of the restaurant and back into our respective cars. I had followed him to the diner, his favorite in an area with no shortage of 24-hour eateries.
“I’m changing my name,” I started, without looking at his face, “I’m changing my last name to Mom’s. I’m eighteen now. I decided a while ago.”
“Is that what you came here to tell me?” he said, grabbing my arm.
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”
“Well a name is just a name, Sam. If you want to change, you do it. Don’t let me or anybody else stop you.” He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed it firmly. “I’ve been trying to change for years. Don’t let anything stop you from being exactly what you want to be.
I stopped by my grandfather’s house to stay the night before I left for home the next morning.
“So how is the bastard?” My grandpa asked as he opened the ragged screen door.
“Hey!” I couldn’t help but laugh as he spoke.
I followed my grandpa into the kitchen where he pulled two non-alcoholic beers out of the fridge and handed one to me. I told him about the trip, and about what my father told me.
“Well, as long as you’re doing okay, Sam.” Grandpa spoke as he took a long drink. I opened the can and tried to copy him, regrettably, and almost choked. It tasted like dirty water and seltzer. “Resentment is a bitch.”
I knew that I needed to call mom, but I decided to wait so that I could be alone with my thoughts for a few hundred miles. As I headed south down I-95, I couldn’t help but notice the technicolor leaves falling all around me. I couldn’t help but feel like autumn had just begun.