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May '05

May 21: Ann Arbor Book Festival & Fundraiser Event!

The Combat Photographer
  by Dave Housley

  by Gregory Howard

Blue and Yellow
Polka Dots

  by Wayne Scheer

Jazz Club Serenade
  by Paul Germano

  by Christina Delia

My father’s father comes home drunk and ready. This was a while ago. In the darkness of his room, under the further darkness of his covers, my father waits. He can hear his brother’s somnolent breathing. He can hear the frequent calls of crickets in the yard. The rumble of a truck, seeping through the window, is ominous. It is a toll. He can hear his parents talk and he can hear the creak in the floorboards. He waits for it to get louder or for it to get softer. He is wide awake and he waits. It’s dark when he tells me this, summer dark. He’s smoking a cigar and we both drink beer and he’s telling me the story of his father. We are spending time together.

We sit at a round metallic green table with blotches of rust on its legs. We sit next to each other, but not close, facing my father’s manicured lawn: his cut grass, his patch of azaleas. On the tabletop there are also blotches of rust. Fireflies light up here, then there, and it seems all right to imagine that they are carrying on a dialogue with the occasional glow of my father’s cigar.

I’ve heard this story before and so as my father continues to relate my mind begins to wander. A better story, I think, would contain multiple fathers. A father-and-son picnic. This way fathers, both good and bad, could commingle in order to illustrate the composite quality of fatherhood--how all fathers are both good and bad; or maybe how, in spite of admixture fathers never really integrate, but instead act as ions of oppositional charge, circling and defining. At this picnic, unlike the traditional father-and-son fare, fathers team up with boys who are not their own--maybe as a leitmotif on how fathering is a cultural practice, but maybe not. Mostly it’s a plot device to get a bunch of boys without fathers--boys who lost their fathers to divorce or death, or divorce then death; boys who never knew their fathers, whose fathers left before they had even been yanked from the womb—anyway, to get these boys in desperate need of fathers to the picnic. Once there, they proceed to team up and engage in a series of competitive father-and-son activities. And these boys respond to the attention of the fathers, and the fathers, freed from the worry of shared history, thoroughly enjoy the company of the boys. The picnic proceeds, until one father notices that some sons, boys with actual fathers, have been left out. And even though they had been having fun, instead of embracing the fatherless boys, the fathers get angry, as fathers tend to do. They demand that the boys leave. They encircle the boys, a mass of angry fathers, and threaten to call the police if the boys do not vacate the premises immediately. All of this from the boys perspective, of course. The boys leave and the fathers and sons resume their play.

Now we’re at the part where my father’s father falls down the stairs and breaks his neck. When I first heard this story I imagined my father was there. I imagined that his father came home drunk and started in on his mother. I imagined that my father got in the middle of it, between his father’s hands and his mother’s body, and that in the struggle, as the three of them pushed and pulled at each other, his father slipped on the top step of the basement stairs and tumbled to his death. But this slip did not have to be fatal. It was only a misstep. His father could have reached out to the doorway to steady himself. In fact, he did. I imagined my father, entangled there between his parents, taking the opportunity of the struggle to nudge his father as he made his attempt to steady himself. And as his father’s head bounced off the sharp corner of the fourth step and his feet followed, I imagined the look in my father’s eye.

In this version there are only the three of them. In this version it is only my father and his mother at the top of the steps and the crumpled body of his father at the foot. My father’s sister is in bed, oblivious. His brother is absent because his manic depression, obese wife and attention-starved son, all serve to erase him from most family stories. In this version I’m not even aware of the existence of another brother, who is busy feeding his own depression in California, growing morbidly overweight and gambling away an early retirement package from AT&T, who will later appear ex nihilo as an uncle, and my sister and I will be expected to affect proper emotion towards this complete stranger and his sweaty and purposeful hands. In this version I am always in the darkness just beyond the body of my father’s father, looking up the dim basement steps at my father and his mother looking down at the dead body below.

But tonight it’s different. Tonight instead of falling down the stairs and breaking his neck, he dies of a heart attack, alone, in the kitchen of his one room efficiency, years after my father’s mother divorced him. He won’t be found for a week. The whole room smells of decay. There are dishes in the sink, on a plate on the counter ketchup has congealed next to half eaten gray cube steak, flies and ants are everywhere, and there he is, prostrate, sprawled on the kitchen floor. By the time the police finally arrive he will actually have to be pealed off the floor. In the interim though I can watch the delicious indignity of death take its toll. I could, if I wanted, open him up, and hold his heart in my hand.

On another night he he’ll have a wife. He will be found in the bathtub, the water fouled with his body’s final discharge. The coroner’s report will indicate a mixture of alcohol and over-the-counter sleeping pills. According to my sister he dies of liver failure while still with the family. According to my mother he dies the way my father says he dies. Still, on other nights, it will be hard to believe that my father ever had a father of his own.

The cigar has burned down to its quick now, and in the house behind us a series of light click off in quick succession. Soon my father will stand and put his hand on my shoulder. He will tell me not to stay up too late, pat me once or twice, then squeeze gently. I will not be able to see his eyes. We will remain like that for just a moment, then he will retire to the solitude of the house. But right now he is still here, next to me, and his story hovers over us, mixing with the smoke from his cigar, the smell of the grass, the mosquitoes, the fireflies.

Later, when I tell this story, all its vagaries will vanish; its multiplicity will be reduced: there will be no brothers; he will have no sister; it will be a story about how my father’s father fell down the basement steps to his death while my father watched. I will offer it to a young woman in exchange for sympathy, which I will confuse for love.

Gregory Howard has published previously in Square One. He lives in Denver.