The following is a short story i wrote decades ago and which was published in a magazine in the mid 90’s. i decided to post it here because 1) a friend’s blog post reminded me of the story and 2) it includes alcohol.
i do realize the short story format isn’t well adapted to blogs so if you have neither the patience nor the desire to read this, please don’t feel obligated to. Also, while friend’s post inspired me to write this, it has nothing to do with her situation. i would hate for her to think i’m trying to draw parallels that aren’t there! Finally, because the story is written in the first person, most people assume it happened to me. It did not. Ever. Not even close. It’s fiction.
I remember. I remember as if it has happened tonight. That evening is more real to me than a memory.
I was twelve years old, living with my father on a small farm in Wisconsin. My father: the man who explained the facts of life to me by leaving a book on my dresser, the man who blushed when people kissed on television, the one who never kissed me or hugged me or told me that he loved me. That had been my mother’s job. She died when I was eleven. My father stopped trying a year later. On that night.
The summer dusk had been lazily smoldering to twilight as I watched alone from the front of our house. The farm seemed a huge quilt beneath the clouds purple with dusk, as the harvest moon peeked her blushed face from under the dark blanket of corn. My father had built a porch swing with wood salvaged from our first barn and hung it himself overlooking our front yard. I was on the porch, listening to the crickets in the tall grass and the squeak of the chains that held the swing, feeling the smell of the earth wash over me in the warm breeze.
After having helped my father with everything from spraying the corn to changing the oil in the pickup to fixing the mailbox, I was remembering my mother without remorse. Memories of my mother’s funeral were making me feel grown up. My legs dangled innocently from the edge of the seat, because men do not swing, until I began softly rocking. A glass of lemonade was trapped tight between my thighs and I shuddered as the chill rushed through me. Because adults never gulped, I would only sip from the lemonade. But with every swallow my undulations increased and soon I was hurling my legs in front of me, watching as my toes kicked the clouds. I was pretending I could fly, but whenever I flung my legs out some of the lemonade would spill onto my thighs and stain the hairless skin with a sticky, sugary coating.
The screen door squeaked and brought me back to the porch swing. I stopped pushing when I heard my father’s hollow footsteps on the wooden floorboards. My father was a thin man, and though he had enough muscles to run a farm and though he was young enough for me not to think of him as old, his strength had already begun to sag in the pouches of his cheeks and his spine was beginning to curve into a reaper’s scythe.
He held one of the chains to stop me swinging.
“Mind if I join ya?”
“No,” I said.
He sat beside me and the swing shifted with his weight.
“What’re you doin?” He reached for my lemonade, took it from me, and set the glass on the rail before us.
I told him I was just thinking.
“Here.” I turned and he offered me a beer. “I guess you’re old enough to drink.”
The relationship he had built and hung as carefully as the swing we shared blew away in the shallow breeze. Tonight, for the first time in his life my father was going to try to be my friend.
“Can I ask you somethin, son?”
“How’d I do? Raisin you, I mean.”
“Fine,” I answered, without thinking. I put the beer between my thighs and studied the top of the can so I did not have to look at my dad.
“I tried hard, y’know?”
I did not know, but said so anyway.
“I wasn’t really cut out for it.”
I sipped the beer. The taste sat thick and heavy at the back of my mouth. I felt as if it were tugging at the base of my tongue. I forced the ale past my throat with a loud gulp, then retched a wet belch. Neither of us said anything. He moved the swing a little with his toes and leaned forward, his arms on his knees, and stared at the bones on the back of his hand.
“You always were your mother’s son. Her responsibility. I tried to do best by you.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’m just no good at it.”
My second, smaller sip of beer tasted worse than the first. I could feel my lips twist involuntarily.
“It’s just that women have ways of trickin you, y’know?”
“Yes,” I said, but I was lying. I did not know.
“I don’t think I ever loved your mother. She just tricked me into gettin married. Kind of snuck up behind me.”
His disclosure rocked me so hard the swing moved. The truth hurt going down, hurt worse than the beer, it fell straight through me like a rock. And when it rose again it burned my throat and stung my nostrils and pricked my eyes and for a moment I thought I was going to vomit my father’s confession over the railing and onto my mother’s deserted flower bed.
“I want you to love her, though,” he told me. “She was a good woman.”
“I do love her,” I struggled, but it was difficult to admit now, while he was there, teaching me how not to.
Silence again. The sun was all but down now. The clouds burned from purple to black.
My father stood up. “I guess that’s all I wanted to say.”
“I love you too, dad.” I said so, though now I knew that too was a lie.
His expression startled me. Fear flashed in his eyes like lightning in freak summer storm, but his expression faded. He regained his composure, nodded, and walked back into the house.
After my father left I could not swing, nor did I finish my lemonade. I held the can of beer with both hands and sipped the drink like a man. As I drank, my father’s words poisoned my veins and brought back to me a memory so distant I wondered at first if it were not a bad dream. And inside the remembering, I drained away my childhood with each sip of beer.
I had been in first grade. It had been Parents’ Day at my school, and the adults were invited to eat lunch with their sons and daughters. My mother and father made special plans to visit me, and it said a lot for them to do that because the farm needed a lot of looking after. But they were making the effort for me, wasting an entire day to appease my constant pleading.
The night before I’d slept even less than Christmas Eve, so elated was I that my folks cared enough to spend two hours on the road just to eat lunch with me. All the next morning kids were bragging up their parents, about how great they were, about all the things they could do. And I was no different. I watched the clock, waiting, almost sick with the anticipation of showing off my parents to my friends. I imagined how they would envy me, congratulate me, and the whole school (even the grown up sixth graders) would want to be my best friends because my folks were so much better than everybody else’s.
Finally lunch arrived. I got my tray and sought out the same table as Amy Lynn, the little girl I loved. My plan was to profit from my parents’ presence by impressing her into loving me back.
Since our school was in the city, most of the students were ‘townies’, a word my father used with as much passion as ‘nigger’ and ‘hippie’. Amy Lynn was a townie, but that did not matter. As soon as my parents saw how much she loved me they would see she was sweet; and then my folks would stop hating townies.
Finally my parents arrived. I tried to hold down my smile but I could not. My father appeared taller and his muscles stretched the fabric of his shirt. He’d combed his hair impeccably and had washed his face so much he shone beneath the florescent lights of the cafeteria. My mother had spent three weeks sewing the dress she wore. She’d had her hair done especially for the day and had even put on some makeup. I walked up to them and proudly escorted them through the lunch line, basking in the admiration the school was showering on me. We sat down, and I glanced at Amy. The expectation was delicious, like the long ride to the top of the track when I rode the roller coaster at the state fair. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her looking at us. When I turned to meet her glance, she was talking to her parents. Though I could not hear what she was saying, I saw her smile and for the briefest of moments I felt the pride of a man reaping his first harvest. But then Amy held her nose and pointed to where we were sitting, and she laughed. And her parents laughed. And I looked at my father all dressed up in clothes he wore only to church or to funerals; his shirt too small and his hair greased and combed to one side with the sweat on his face reflected in the lights above us. He smiled a weak smile, and I turned away. My mother spoke but I saw only that she was overweight and absurd in a dress that resembled curtains more than clothing. Her hairdo was beginning to shift, and the ridiculous paint she had spent all morning applying without knowing how was melting on her face. I saw them as I had never seen them before. I saw them as a stranger would see them and I was ashamed of them.
Tonight lives long after midnight. I am lying alone in bed, awake like a little boy afraid of the dark, afraid of the bogeyman, afraid of his own mother’s ghost. Tonight there is no one to give me the reassurance I need to sleep. I think I wish I had apologized to my father, that night on the swing, for having seen him and my mother as they were and not as I had believed them to be. The adult thing, however, was to guard the hatred and the fear. So as an adult I fed my doubts to the monster who had never been under the bed or in the closet, but hiding inside of me.
He hurts me. Some nights he eats me alive.
Maybe that is why I never went back home after I graduated college, but became a ‘townie’ instead. Maybe that is why I did not cry when my father died. And maybe that is why I cannot sleep at night, and why I still hate the taste of beer.
Dad, I’m sorry you were such a terrible father, and I’m sorry I was such a lousy son. I still hate you for making me realize I never loved you, and for making me doubt my love for my mother. Forgiving myself for Parents’ Day took a long time and a lot of faith, like a boy believing in Santa Claus again. Like a boy trying to prove his love to a dead mother. Love is a hard thing to prove when it cannot be displayed. I guess I learned that from you. Like how not to be a grown up. And the grandson you did not live to meet is sleeping down the hall, and it scares me to think there are times he is ashamed of me, not because he should not be, but because guilt stays with a person for a long long time. Father, I pray I don’t make the same mistakes you did and I pray if I do he’ll forgive me more easily than I forgave you. And dad, I pray that he won’t end up like you or me.