Eleven Stories: Father’s Day
Eleven memories of my father. (I had three in mind initially, but more kept coming. Too bad. Suck it up.)
The moral of this story is, don’t climb a moss-slick chestnut tree with moccasins on your feet. I climbed up no more than five feet, and I fell. My arm flailed as I tumbled the short distance; the arm hit a rock or a hard piece of dirt or a buried hunk of chain and, snap. Broke both wristy-bits. I don’t remember much. I remember yelling, and I remember the way my arm went straight up until the wrist and then did a sharp-angle down before continuing on to the hand. I remember telling Dad that I was fine, through blubbering five-year-old tears, and I remember him scooping me up and running my broken butt to the hospital. I remember him being a little bit scared. I remember that the time between when I broke my wrist and the time we were in the car burning asphalt wasn’t more than five minutes.
We had 16 acres, so “down the field” meant I was going to go play in the thicket, the meadow, by the pond, in the woods, in the mud, whatever. I was down the field, I was… I dunno how old. Under ten years. I stepped toward a busted stump, then I saw it, and I screamed. I screamed like a weepy girl scout. I screamed like the Creature from the Black Lagoon was reaching for me in full 3-D. I screamed like my life was on the line, and for the moment, I thought that it was, because the monster in front of me was surely going to feast on my tender child-parts. Dad came barreling out of nowhere, probably figuring I’d tried to climb a wet tree in smooth moccasins again. Then he laughed, and confronted the monster that was confronting me. The garter snake was pencil-thin and terrified. He got me to calm down, hold it, play with it, then let the poor distraught snake go. From that point forward, I wasn’ t scared of snakes.
After that, he’d play a game. He’d walk up, his callused worker’s hand closed. He’d say, “Open your hand.” And you’d say no. And he say, “Open your hand,” and then you’d do it. And he’d upend something gross into your palm. A weird bug. A toad, a frog. A frog’s egg. Sometimes, it wasn’t gross — an arrowhead, a funny-shaped stone, a strawberry — but most of the time, it was gross. And also, awesome.
I took the shot, and I missed. It was a long shot. Too long. Four-hundred yards or thereabout, and I was aiming at a groundhog who was half behind the mound of his hole. Bang. Cough of dirt. The hog went back into his hole. Nobody thought I’d make the shot, but you see a groundhog, you try for the shot, even though this one was across the valley and on the up-slope of a hill. Dad and I figured that was that, but then my Uncle Danny said, “He’s back.” And the hog was back. You could see him in the glasses standing up at his hole again. So, I locked and loaded, and stayed steady, and tried to remember all the things Dad had taught me, the thing with the breath, the thing with the gentle trigger squeeze (never a pull), and I lined him up, and I pulled the trigger, and then — nothing. Another cough of dirt. But my uncle thought I got him. We got our legs a movin’, and headed to the hole, and sure enough, dead groundhog, four-hundred yards, and I was, 12, maybe 13. Proud Dad doesn’t cover it. He still talked about it, up until his death a year and a half ago.
Of course, my Dad could shoot a speck of dust off a mosquito’s shoulder. When he went groundhog hunting, he used a 7mm mag Remington. He’d take the shot, and we’d go to see the hole, and at the hole you’d find a bag of skin. And then, about 10, 20 feet past, you’d find the guts.
Game day. Roleplaying. High school. Bunch of friends over. One of them was probably in a skirt. One of them had probably brought a trash bag full of bagels. One of them had drawn on his hand with pen. Dad saw that. We were eating pizza, and he came up, and thought it was maybe a tattoo. Then he proceeded to give us all a lecture on why we should never, ever get a tattoo. The reasoning is, if we ever have to do something, something real bad, something we’d regret, that’s how they’d identify us. The tattoo. They always identify people by their tattoos, he said. He’d repeat this advice to me over the years. He also stopped me on the stairs one day and said, if I ever had to do something, something bad, something that I had no choice about, to call him first. He’d help me take care of it. I don’t know what he was referring to, exactly, but I usually assume it means, “hide the body.” Needless to say, I never got a tattoo. And I never will, because I know he’ll reconstitute himself and find me, and he’ll probably give me a good ass-kicking.
The elk was out. It was winter, and I left the trailer to head to work — I’d moved back home from Charlotte, and was living back with my Dad on the property in the trailer once occupied by my grandmother. I walked outside to head up to the car, and when I did that I always passed by the elk enclosure. Once, we’d had whitetail deer in there (30+), but by that point, it was only elk, and then only three of them. Usually, the three elk were inside the fence. I saw the fence. I saw two elk. Then I saw the fence on the far side. And just past that, I saw the bull elk, standing there, plain as day and dumb as shit. I called Dad at work, he came home. The bull elk being out was… not ideal. When we had deer, they were pleasant. Friendly. They’d come up to you, nibble your sleeve. The bull elk would kill you. He’d hit that fence like a great white shark — bam, bam, bam. Whole enclosure would rattle. So, getting him in was not going to be fun. Fast-forward to my one uncle with two ski poles, my Dad with a lasso, my other uncle wandering around and talking to people on the road, and me with the shotgun (“Just in case,” Dad said. “He goes for us, you shoot him”). We had to wrangle the angry bull elk into the pen again. My Uncle stood up on the stable wall, my father below. Ski poles prodding the elk in the ass, Dad constantly trying to lasso the antlers. Somehow, he managed on the fifth or sixth try–looped the rope around the antlers, tightened around the base, and pulled the thrashing beast back into the pen. I didn’t have to shoot the elk, so that was good. Oh, the elk’s name was “Sir Loin,” in case you’re wondering.
“He’s jerkin’ off,” Dad said. I didn’t believe him at first, because it seemed kind of unlikely. An elk, masturbating? How? Elk don’t have hands. Or even particularly flexible necks. Then I saw how. The elk just flexes whatever counts for his pubococcygeus muscle, and his dick slam-dances around like a dying fish, smacking against the elk’s belly. That would go on for 30 seconds, then the elk would ejaculate, and then the elk would rest for a moment, then go right back at it. It coined the term “elkwhack.”
I met George, my Dad’s friend, when Michelle and I went out to Colorado. George shook my hand and started asking me all kinds of questions about my writing, and in particular, my recent foray into screenwriting. He knew all there was to know about my writing career. This surprised me, because that meant Dad knew all there was to know about my writing career, and he told people about it with pride. It was a big moment. I knew Dad had been paying attention. I knew he believed in me. I knew he was proud. I’d made a convert out of him. It convinced me once and for all that I was on the right track.
In the hospital, we still thought he was going to be okay. Prostate cancer’s not good, and it had gone on too long, but they seemed optimistic that the surgery was going to handle it. And in the hospital, Dad talked a lot about the fights he was in. He was a fighter. I don’t mean literally, as in for money, but he had no problem standing up for what he believed in, and throwing a punch to back it up. The stories of him almost getting into fights or getting into fights were endless. Threatening some Marine in a K-Mart parking lot. Starting what amounts to a bar fight (punches, bottles, thrown cups of beer) at a Phillies game and getting thrown out. Fights over women. I remember one time the power company kept calling Dad and telling him he owed them money, but he didn’t; it was a billing error, and they kept repeating the same error month after month. They finally said, “If you don’t remit payment, we’re going to shut off your power.” And Dad said to them, “If you shut off my power, I’m going to shut off your fuckin’ power.” They gauged his seriousness, realizing that he would really somehow shut down their entire power grid, and that was the end of that billing error. So, we knew Dad was a fighter. We hoped that it mattered, that this thing with the cancer was just one more fight.
We walked a-ways from the house in Colorado, down a steep slope and through brush and scrub, to Buzzard Creek. We found a place past the bend in the road, not far from the bridge, and we dumped his ashes there. I didn’t say much. Didn’t have much to say. He wasn’t a man given over to maudlin poetry, and I didn’t think that’s what he’d want. Ashes aren’t like they are in the movies, not entirely. Some of it is powder, but a lot of it is heavy pellets, like tiny stone or kitty litter. It hit the creek and swirled in, an ashen eddy, and then that was that, he was gone. Part of Colorado. His happy hunting ground. They don’t make men like him anymore. That generation, the Clint Eastwoods and the Steve McQueens, that might’ve been the last real generation of men that this country has seen for a while. We are all lesser copies. Remember that, this Father’s Day. They’re not going to make another one like the one you got. Honor him while you have the chance.