It’s past midnight when I come to the intersection of Xerxes and 63rd. I have Janis Joplin’s “Mercedes Benz” playing at maximum volume. I’m belting it out myself, hitting the steering wheel along with the beat, so I almost miss seeing the strange image in the middle of the road. Is that some old guy directing the traffic? I wonder. Yep, it is. He’s throwing his arms out in intricate sequences as he shows cars who’s next and which way to turn like some interpretive dancer on Broadway. I slow down a bit to make sure I don’t hit him. He stumbles unsteadily periodically, like he’s tripped over something. Who knows what direction he’ll turn next?
As I come closer to the intersection, I notice his coat looks familiar. It’s hard to tell for sure because it’s night and the streetlight glare blurs things, but it sure looks like something I’ve seen before, a wrinkly blue windbreaker. I can barely see that there’s some kind of logo over the left breast. It’s drizzling a little but the guy just lets the rain wet his head. I can see the glow from the cigarette dangling in his mouth. A sick feeling of awareness and dread fills my stomach as the image gets closer. I do know this sorry, soused guy performing his “civic duty.” He waves me on with a flourish and a stumble. I drive on through like I haven’t noticed his direction. My dad.
It’s not the first time I’ve been too embarrassed to acknowledge him. A true, kind heart would stop and pick him up if they knew him. Tonight, I’m not that person, I tell myself. I’m tired of the story and just want to ride away. Unwanted tears fill my throat as I wait for what’s coming next.
“Drink it now!” the father demanded in his foreboding Eastern European accent.
“I don’t want to, Pa. Please?” the miniature reflection of the father pleaded.
The father glared at his son, a look that could scare the devil, “I said drink!” He slammed the shot glass of cheap whiskey down in front of his son, a few drops fell onto the worn table. “You drink. I’m raising a son. You must drink or I’ll beat you!” the father said as he reached for his wooden walking stick.
The son knew this was true. He had felt the beatings before. Not again, so he took the shot glass and swallowed the bitter, fiery liquid. Tears filled his eyes—both from the whiskey and a guilty conscience. He’d failed himself again.
Behind the half-open kitchen door an older sister watched, witnessed the too familiar scene. Helpless. She’ll share this story of father and son as a defense for her brother’s future behavior with her goddaughter to be born `years later.
I don’t want the rationalizations to invade my mind. I just want my car to take me home. Take me away. There are too many memories. I feel the ball of tears in my throat once again and try to swallow them.
The man with a roll of mauve carpet, tied to the top of his gray Gremlin turned to pull into his daughter’s driveway, but missed it and careened into the ditch on the left side. His wheels spun as he tried to back out, only succeeding in getting the car more deeply entrenched in the ditch.
The daughter watching from the back screen door felt the familiar lump of sorrow and shame form in her throat as she turned to her husband. “He needs your help, Sweetie,” she said.
He nodded in compassionate resignation and headed out the door, having been put through similar situations before.
As the husband walked toward the car, a neighbor stopped to help. The daughter’s embarrassment grew. She was already planning how to explain the incident to the neighbor. Her father’s shame is hers, too.
You should have stopped; you should have stopped. That was your dad, I berate myself. You’re probably thinking the same thing, my reader, and perhaps in normal circumstances I would have, but I’m just too tired tonight. I don’t know if I could sit through one of his drunken states even for the few minutes it would take to get home. Understand, when he’s had “one too many,”
which he does all too often, he’s either as mean as a trapped badger or soaked with sappy tears. Either way, it’s hard to deal with. So is this ball of tears as it rises again.
My mom, brothers, and I were sitting down at the kitchen table having our supper. We had waited and waited for him to get home but he, obviously, was going to be late again. JJ had just finished a hilarious tale of selling six pair of shoes at the mall to an eccentric customer, and we were all in the middle of a good family laugh, when we heard the tires and the hum of Dad’s car’s engine in the driveway. All of us instantly quieted and a pall of dread replaced the merriment. We all knew he was probably drunk. JJ and I quickly took a piece of bread from the stack in the center of the table. Neither one of us wanted to be the victim of the “eat-a-piece-of-bread” tirades he was famous for when he had been over the limit.
My mom sighed heavily. I never knew if she did that every time because she was glad Dad made it home safely or she was preparing herself for the approaching scene. I reached over and patted her hand. She gave me a grateful nod and a little smile.
Suddenly, the door to the kitchen burst open, hitting the wall with a definite thud. My dad’s head peered through the doorway and eyed us all at the table. “Couldn’t wait for me, huh?” he said as the rest of him clumsily entered the kitchen. His blue eyes were rimmed with blood vessels. We knew we were in for it. “Why couldn’t you wait for me? I wasn’t that late. Seems like a family could wait until everyone is home,” he snarled like some chained bulldog.
“We tried to wait, Sweetie, but the kids were really hungry and . . .”
He waved Mom to silence like the director cutting a scene, “Enough!”
Mom stopped and we all watched as Dad stealthily searched the kitchen. He halted when he saw the washcloth bunched up on the counter and pointed to it, “And look at that washcloth. How many times do I have to tell you guys how to fold a washcloth around here? Huh? Bad enough a guy can’t eat with his family, but does he have to come home to a mess, too?” he said through gritted teeth. He said more, too, as he stomped his way to his bedroom to get out of his work clothes—some cheap Montgomery Wards suit—his footsteps shaking the pictures on the wall. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t hear what he was saying, we’d all heard enough. One by one, we asked Mom if we could be excused. cleaned off our plates, set them in a neat stack by the sink and went our separate directions in silence, another normal family supper—for our house, anyway—completed.
You shouldn’t feel guilty about passing him by, I try to calm myself. He makes his own decisions. It’s only a mile. He’ll make it. You can’t fix everything, you know. That tear ball lodged in my throat won’t let me forget.
It was the Christmas Mom was pregnant with my youngest brother. She was resting, so I had two younger brothers in my room with me playing a Candyland game one of them had gotten that morning from Santa. I also didn’t want them interrupting Dad’s watching the football game in the nearby television room. Maybe we could have a happy Christmas Day.
No such luck. JJ hit the end first, “I’m the winner!” he shouted a couple times, arms raised in victory.
This started my four-year-old brother Mike crying big time and stamping his feet, you know how kids do, “It’s my game! I’m supposed to win! JJ cheated! JJ cheated.”
Mike was stomped out by other steps coming down the hall like beats of a war drum. The three of us kids grew quiet. I stood up and faced my doorway. I was the oldest and we were in my room. The unwritten rule was that I would pay the consequences. Like a monster in a bad dream Dad suddenly loomed over me, looking at me through demon eyes. I watched him, trapped, as he took in the scene in the room and found the game in disarray surrounded by my little brothers on the floor. For some reason my face felt wet, tiny droplets of what? It took me a few seconds to realize it had come from Dad. His spit . . . in my face. I had no time to react before his finger was pushed into the tip of my nose, “You spoil everything!” he slurred through his signature clenched teeth, pushing on my nose with every word, before he turned and left the room.
My brothers and I said nothing. Not looking at each other, we picked up the remainders of the game and put them away in the box. I didn’t want to touch the awful spit on my face, so I just let it soak in.
He was a good man once, before life went bad on him and he started drinking, I tell myself, as I pull up to the house. The lights are on in the living room. Lights, I suppose, that should signal a welcome home, a relief as I reach my parents’ house for a weekend visit, but to me those lights are just ominous reminders of who still is coming home sometime after me. My stomach instinctively churns. Inside himself he’s still a good man, I say. I’m convinced I’m right. I have many memories of Dad, not all of them bad ones, though I have many more of those, too many to pass through my mind in the little distance I’ve had to drive from the intersection to here. I want the good guy back, my insides cry out, dissipating the phantom ball of tears. . . . We’ll see.