He was our father, and he fucked us. — Rod Steiger
Suicidal, apt to crumple on a dime in fits, I was flown out to my father’s in his dustbowl town, where nothing was expected, said my father, the place would be all mine, take a job when you’re ready, said my father, or anything you like. I’m looking for my own work, said my father, but we’ll fix you up, and if you need it, said my father, we’ll go find it, that’s what really counts. You’ve only got to get here, said my father, that’s it. We’ll be together then, and together we’ll be good.
I stared into space at my father’s house of gloom for the days it took to find a piece of my old self, then turned into a freak, running miles at a pop and busting calisthenics. And then I was reading again, then I was rolling through the country to marvel at life in the fields of rye. I wrote foolish letters to my girl in California. I wrote awful poems and a story with no end.
Between my sadness and my guilt, taking from my father in his own bad luck—mortgage in arrears, sharks at his door—I couldn’t eat more than a taco a day and a bite or two of beans. One morning I spied a tub of cream in the fridge, and my mouth began to water. But just as I’d got the tub on the counter and cream on the spoon, ready to smear my taco up, my father, as usual, appeared.
“Put it back,” he said.
“We’re saving that for a special occasion.”
The double take, that’s what I gave my father. He was serious, his face a stupid stone.
“You mean for the gala we’re having Friday night?” My father kept his stare. “It’s a dollop of sour cream, Dad.”
“I don’t care what it is,” my father said with The Voice he used so well at times like these. “When you’re in my house, you’ll live by my rules.”
“You have got to be kidding.”
“Next time, make sure you ask.”
Decades vanished, then, and I was a kid of seven. “But why?” I said.
“Because I said so, that’s why.”
After that, I’d have been stunned to see him roast a wiener, but a few days later my father announced our dinner that night with Suzie, the woman he’d somehow lately taken.
Compared to my mother, if just by looks, Suzie was a turd on a satin sheet. She had a mannish face and brittle hair, acid-washed jeans with blouses from Walmart and Sears. Add to these her arrogance, her coarse guffaws and filthy mouth—“You’re getting so skinny,” she said to me once, “you’re going to fall through your asshole and choke yourself!”—and you were face to face with the best of the worst, as in the best-lack-all-conviction worst.
My father was getting naked with this cretin.
My father was sticking his penis in this cretin as she grunted her imperatives.
And the more I saw my father curtsy like a dolt in two left shoes, and the more I caught my father jumping at her orders and laughing at her jokes, the harder it became to look him in the eye.
We were greeted by a waitress in suspenders plagued with buttons. There were bogus flamingos and bogus plants and tuck-and-roll banquettes. Roy Orbison-cum-Muzak sealed the mood, and stale air. Then, as the waitress told her “specials,” my father said, under his breath, “Nothing fancy, got it?” I looked at him, like before. “Chicken or pasta,” he said.
Suzie gobbled up her surf and turf, then sucked her teeth and told a joke with pitchforks and dead babies while my father used his card to pay the bill. On it, where the tip should’ve been, was a zero.
Thank God for California girl.
Three weeks later, in mid-June, she flew out for a visit. We got nice in the honkytonks on Route 66 and, for all the chumps to see, screwed at dusk in my father’s yard. And then she was gone, to our city by the bay, and I was left to stumble from my dream.
Two weeks on again, when I could take no more of my quarantine or my father, she bought my ticket home, where I let a flat with a couple psychotic Irishmen. One got me hired by a builder, then attacked me with a hammer when the boss put me in charge. The other was a creep who[JSR1] murdered cats and stabbed his friends with darts when they were drunk.
My father was the man who never let you sleep when he couldn’t sleep, the man who came to you before the sun had risen to drive to the mountain to see it rise, then, stoned as ever, head down to the donut shop where none but old men and reprobates gripped their cups and spun their yarns through clouds from hissing batter. My father hauled you down your paper route then drove you to the creek for pollywogs and snakes. My father saw your glories and defeats on baseball fields and soccer fields, and listened to the stories of your exploits in the hills, your blacktop brawls, your reasons for loss, your little white lies and confessions of guilt, your knock-knock jokes, ridiculous, the piss-pot woes of your teenaged heart, all the while withholding his own, hidden in his beard, his buzz, the days he didn’t show, his omnipresent haze of fear—of the truth of his life, the grief he’d not tracked for what could only have been a cavalcade of losses and defeats from the childhood he’d survived himself: here expelled from the contest for his drawing of a stag his teachers judged a fraud—there bereft of the father he’d never had save in lore, dearly beloved anyway, as you knew forthwith when my father spoke his father’s name—here yet again, a man, trapped in the marriage my mother’s father had forced my father into when my mother told the monster she was pregnant at sixteen—and there again yet, blasted, with three sons at twenty-seven, his dreams on the wind and little in the bag but the hump along his path of failure and defeat.
And that was my father, now, trapped in his house, more a tomb than a home, the tyranny of his ruin bearing down.
Before I’d got out to my father’s, he was so much more than that. My father was my confidante, my cohort, my comrade in crime, my father was my mentor, my dealer, my captain, my king. And then, by the time I’d left—how can I say?—he was gone, my father, a wretch. I didn’t merely dislike my father, then. I hated him. But more than all the rest, even as I hated the man, I loved the father, still.
Denial’s the grace that shelters us till shelter is ourselves.
The truth of my father had always lain before me. And though I knew it had, I didn’t know I knew, nor could I have said it.
I didn’t want to know. It was just too much to know.
I avoided and denied the reality of my father as surely as my father had denied and avoided the reality of his own.
And nothing I did could obliterate my mother.
You couldn’t deny the illness of a woman who beat her son often, molested him in measures, tortured him a thousand ways. You couldn’t deny the illness of a woman whose kleptomania risked her family over and again, whose generally awful ways wrought disgrace in the least affair, from family gatherings and vacations to common times at bars and pools, or on a field trip to see how men made salt.
The logic of a child’s urge to flee such a woman, always, of the terror of a child made to live with such a woman, of the hunger of such a child for a spoonful of comfort and trust—none of these, either, can be denied. A child in these conditions, a child with just a sliver of will to survive, would cling fast to the human best ready to meet these needs.
For all my father’s weakness, my father was my haven, beyond which I saw just waste.
My mother tore my hair and clawed and slapped my face and neck.
My mother touched me with her hands and fucked me with her eyes, and with her words she fucked my mind, and when at last she’d finished, if merely for a time, she thrashed me with her spoons.
By contrast, punishment at my father’s hands was mild. My father whipped me with a belt sometimes, for reasons he explained: “You know why I’m whipping you, Son?”
Had these times made the whole of my harm by my father, they might have been excused. But these times did not make the whole of my harm by my father, or even just a few. When my father pressed together his first and second fingers, like a wooden dowel, he had a dowel with which to jab a chest. Equal pain, of course, through different means—accepted then for standard castigation—was brought down, too: curling, then squeezing, your son’s pinky, or with a finger thumping your son’s head, or dragging your son by his ear into banishment, the room of his exile, the corner he’d be made to stand.
And no matter the sentence, it was doled out always with The Voice of Paternal Law, The Voice of The Father, giant. My father may have deigned at times to spare these trials, but never The Voice of The Father, which alone sufficed to warn that past the limits of good faith, pain did lurk.
Still, when all was said and done, I felt a little safe knowing the worst that could happen by my father was a whipping with a belt. Some pokes to the chest? A twist of the ear or thump to the head? What were these to a beating with my mother’s spoons?
But wicked as they were, the creatures I’d seen in my father’s zoo of horror were not by far the worst. Behind the curtain behind the desk, rougher beasts were slouching yet.
D. Foy is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Made to Break, and the novel, Patricide, releasing October 2016 (preorder here). His work has appeared in Guernica, Salon, Hazlitt, Post Road, Electric Literature, BOMB, The Literary Review, Frequencies, Midnight Breakfast, The Scofield, and The Georgia Review, among others, and has been included in the books Laundromat and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. Visit his website at www.dfoyble.com.