They say I knew you before I was born. The sound of your voice. The music you play from vinyl records—The Andrew Sisters, Dean Martin, Etta James. The light of your cigarette. Like a magic wand waving over me in the womb making me what I am. Look away when it’s too bright. Jump back when it’s too hot to touch. This is 1970, when men had names like Roger and Stan and Dennis and had bottles of gin on their desks at work. You’re Peter. You’re my father and I barely knew you.
I know what you look like from pictures: New Year’s Eve, paper bugle, in a suit at The Breakers and one of me as a newborn with you holding me next to a lamp with a plastic-covered shade.
Our profiles are the same.
I also know you from the shape of my hands to the way I move across a room. You have your father’s walk, my mother says. And your ears, I notice. The better to hear you with? Your voice is so faint, though. The way echoes die. It is now and it was then, as light as the smoke from your cigarettes. Here, there, then fading to nothing but a linger and a scent.
Even though you’ve been dead for so many years I can still smell your musk on the comb you once used. Everything smells like Old Spice. It was your aftershave, your cologne, and your deodorant of choice.
I thought life was a magic trick. Abracadabra. I thought life was a sci-fi movie, held in a galaxy far, far away, a long time ago. Or, The Hudson Brothers. The Sonny and Cher Show. Pinocchio? It takes first a boy to become a man. Watch my nose. Watch me grow.
I thought life was a monorail ride, in the cockpit, co-pilot, crossing an imaginary line into another dimension, where people were happy and joyous and polite and fed birds freely and took pictures of couples on their honeymoon, who couldn’t frame a shot just right without a stranger’s help. It was a fantasy. A day at the Magic Kingdom. I thought life was an episode of Three’s Company, I Dream of Jeannie, Happy Days, with their canned laughter and overwritten, overacted happy endings.
Slap the jukebox and get a free song.
Since I can remember, I longed for a family. Not the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch. Just a mom and a dad and a kid who had the chance to be one. The idea became a plot; I wanted to become the star of my own show. I even wanted a daughter before a son, a girl who would pull my strings like a puppet. I’m a marionette in my sweatshirt hoodie with the cord through the neck. You pull and I smile. Take the second string. You have both. Maybe you’ll have my smile and I’m as scared as ever.
But thirty years later, it’s still about Peter.
My life so far had a superb cast but I couldn’t figure out the plot. At times I’ve lived a romance novel. A horror story. And other times, a dark comedy. My mother likes to tell people that my father had only one testicle when I was conceived. She uses the anecdote at parties as though it’s the perfect complement to wine and cheese. To me, it’s the reason I think I’ll only ever be half a man. I hear those words and they frighten me. What am I to become? Are bad habits contagious? Will I eventually be molded from their image instead of God’s? These things my parents do. What they confess. What baggage they carry. Am I doomed?
For a time my parents were something else to me: fictional creations, cartoon characters, impersonators, figments, look-a-likes, costumes on a set, filmed in front of a live studio audience. My father was The Fonz, Mister Rogers, Jack Tripper, Abe Bagoda in Fish. My mother was Cher. I inherited from them a certain level of fear. Manhood had become a calendar item, like a holiday or birthday—premeditated, planned, then exercised. Especially for those raised Jewish, like me. Some Saturday around your thirteenth birthday you’d be up on the pulpit (stage) singing blessings over the bread and wine, and reading Hebrew from the Torah, a velvet-covered scroll filled with words that lacked vowels. Living in Florida, I checked the hurricane list each year to see if my name was on it. If I destroyed a city would that make me a man?
It’s all I had left. In the end that’s all I had left of my father. A gold-faced Armitron wristwatch. It still kept good time but the band had shed links over the years. Only the face remained. I kept it as a pocket watch. I thought it’d be safe there. I thought we’d all be safe forever, until the summer of 1979.
My mother kidnapped me in her ’78 Chevy when I was eight. She was thirty-four. The car was brand new.
Except for the roof, which was white, the car was rust orange, something along the lines of burnt sienna, a crayon color I owned but had worn down by drawing spaceships and my own name over and over. Orange wasn’t the wisest choice for a getaway car, but my mother wasn’t known for wise decisions or for her ability to blend in, unlike the lizards I kept as pets back then, that could go green in an instant, in grass or in the boat-shape cocoon of an aloe vera leaf. The car reminded me of a creamsicle. I went along with her without a struggle, without a fight. But that would change soon enough.
In 1979, Florida was a den of frosted hairdos, plastic pink flamingos, above-ground pools, electric menorahs, neon signs, fake ferns and amusement park animatronics—tacky and obscene no matter which way you looked. Mirrored sunglasses put a wash of yellow over everything: the ocean, the palms, the stucco buildings that look as though they’d been poured from a bread mold and turned upside down onto the sand and burrs, a sandcastle without the tiers. On the outside, my mother’s lenses made my face appear to melt like a funny mirror at a carnival sideshow. Even heavily chlorinated translucent pools transformed objects underwater, where, on the bottom, a penny could look like a gold nugget or a brave diver might resemble a manatee.
When we weren’t parked at rest stops along the Florida Turnpike for bathroom breaks and chocolate bars, my mother simply drove, a film of dead bugs like dried cranberries taking the windshield head on. We lost and picked up radio stations as though they were hitchhikers. Another Chevy Nova passed on the opposite side of the road. It was cotton candy blue. The man inside waved, like we were all part of a brotherhood. He reminded me of my own father—balding, thick nose, wide ears—who my mother had just left behind.
With a few clicks more than a thousand miles the car was barely broken in. My dad had bought the Chevy, as well as a Buick for himself, just before taking his turn in the hospital. The bench seats had yet to fade in the Florida sun; the air conditioning still blew cold. Even the steering wheel was orange. Leaves hadn’t had a chance to find their way into the ducts, where they’d eventually rattle the vents like playing cards in the spokes of a bicycle. Decals and paint were factory standard. When I sell it nine years later, before I leave for college, the oil pan will leak and the wiper hose will have a tear, but right now it’s the ultimate in 1970s automotive perfection.
Walt Disney World had become our summer excursion, our escape. Four hours from the hospital, it was the perfect three-day stretch, the ideal getaway. One of my favorite parts of the trip was seeing the orange groves that lined the turnpike. Stopping for gas and wintergreen Certs, window cracked, I smelled the blossoms, the fragrance, the sweetness of the citrus. I was upset my father was missing it.
My father had been wheeled into surgery at the Miami Heart Institute on a nifty moving tray, all silver and gold—it reminded me of a throne—at 3:35 in the afternoon, right in the middle of my mother’s “soap,” where Christian Montgomery was also scheduled for surgery because his estranged ex-wife shot him three times in the stomach with a 38-Special. Twenty-eight years of huffing and puffing on Camel cigarettes had led to two heart attacks, one case of pneumonia and emphysema, and now my father needed bypass surgery—quadruple was the word whispered around certain circles so I couldn’t hear.
We lived in Boynton Beach, Florida. But despite its name, it had no beachfront; rather, was located across the Intracoastal Waterway from the oceanfront municipalities of Ocean Ridge and Briny Breezes. My father said that as land became more valuable, housing developments along the Intracoastal Waterway and the Federal Highway appeared like mirages in the desert. To the west, dairies were established so that the Boynton area became the main milk supplier for Palm Beach County. But by the 1970s, the dairies were no longer profitable and these lands, too, were converted into housing developments. The land itself swept from flatness to a vast emptiness connected by more flatness, fields of grasses cut as short as military men’s hair, the only rolls set up by men who brought in sand and clay to make golf courses or artificial dunes. As a general contractor, my father was one of them.
I never felt comfortable in south Florida, with its stacks of stucco and shingles, like our townhouse that happened to be surrounded by neighbors on all four sides. We had a courtyard of stone and a slatted wooden fence that wasps liked to nest in. The storage shed sat wedged in the corner, holding a gas grill, two wooden tennis rackets and a 10-speed bike with a flat tire, bent handlebars, and the only real color to report, the rust on the bike’s frame holding its own as scabs against stark white paint, all of this covered with a dull blue tarp to keep out the rain and the lizards.
We reached the main gate where Disney characters were carved into shrubs shaped like Mickey, Donald, Pluto, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
“Daddy is Sleepy,” I say, pointing at the topiary of him.
“Sleepy?” my mother says.
“His comma,” I say, thinking his problems have something to do with punctuation.
“Coma,” she says. “It’s ‘coma.’”
“Is he going to wake up?” I ask.
“I don’t know.”
“Is he dead?”
“No, not really,” my mother said with a quiver.
My mother appeared especially eager. Anxious. Nervous. “We’re not going back there. I can’t. I hate hospitals.” She would tell me this in front of the Country Bear Jamboree, while stuffed bears smiled and sang. An ice cream bar shaped like Mickey Mouse was supposed to soften the blow. I would ask for two and use the information in order to leverage a pirate-themed cap gun and new mouse-ear hat with my name stitched in cursive on the back. Country music played behind her on metal-ribbed washboards and I could just make out the smell of popcorn and lipstick on my mother’s lips.
At midnight we’re back in the car and I ask, “Why?”
“We’re not going back to the hospital.”
“Because,” she says.
“Where are we going? Can’t we say goodbye?” My mother didn’t have an answer for that. We simply drove. As we passed exits and tollbooths and moved by the light of stars and taillights, I thought about the glass blowers at Disney, where I was allowed to linger longer than usual. A man making delicate Tinkerbell figurines—one after another, after another—the glass like strings of taffy.
My mother talked about a better life for us, but at my age, I wasn’t sure what that looked like. Search your youth and you’re likely to find this question: what do you want to be? Not who but what. I wanted to be what most boys wanted to be: an astronaut, floating, weightless; an architect, building with real wood and real blocks; a policeman, protecting yourself from fear, shooting danger like a paper target hanging a hundred feet away; or a gynecologist, who always put women and children first.
But what was better than a few days at the Magic Kingdom? Different wasn’t necessarily better, after all. Ultimately the drive was just a distraction from the problems at hand. Like those characters cut into the bushes, where I could see wire underneath. The illusions, the fantasy, started to fade. I stuck a magnet of Cinderella’s castle on the metal glove box in front of me. My mother bought several as souvenirs. I imagined it pulling us north. Away from the past. Away from the hospital. Away from my father. In the side mirror I saw headlights. In the darkness I felt the ocean. The salt weights the air. There was water to our right and to our left and straight back. Dry land was just ahead, but what we’d left behind was closer than it appeared.
In the years after my father’s death, Mother had developed a habit of chasing me around the house. Not in a loving way. Not for a laugh or game of hide and seek. But more of a pin the tail on the donkey kind of way—blindfolded, with an action that always ended with a pain in the butt, my butt. Her kind of chasing was for catching and for beating, if the moment allowed. This is what mothers were for, she would say. Little boys needed discipline, especially when their fathers weren’t around to provide it. After all, there were still hole-filled paddles in principal’s offices, so it wasn’t so unusual for a mother to have a belt or slipper or just a hand ready and at her disposal. Later, I would learn my mother was bipolar. But in 1976, all psychiatrists would do for her was try and look down her blouse for an hour and then tell her to go home and get a hobby. Crazy was reserved for killers and people slobbering on themselves. Not for lonely housewives who had model sons and whose husbands had built the Palm Beach Mall with his own hands.
To escape, I turned through the TV Guide and found pictures of Lynda Carter, Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett. But I knew them as Wonder Woman, the Bionic Man and an Angel. I decided to simply snap the television dial until I found the broadcast, just in time to see my favorite image from almost every show: Red Foxx grasping his chest, falling backwards, and yelling, “Oh, this is the biggest one I ever had. You hear that Elizabeth? I’m coming to join you, honey.” Right on cue, I stumbled around the house doing my best Fred Sanford, walking like a mummy from room to room, spitting out over and over, “I’m coming to join you, ‘lizabeth. I’m coming to join you.” This always made my mother laugh, and this time was no exception. As quick as she was to lash out in anger, she was just as fast to forget. Making her laugh was my own superpower.
My mother agrees, eventually a boy needs to wear a tie. A real tie, not of a clip-on variety. There are award ceremonies and weddings and interviews and restaurants that require such accouterments. There are holidays and graduations and Sunday school and dances, where dread often overwhelms hope. There may also be funerals and court dates and divorces and blind dates. Reunions and anniversaries and when your mom just says to wear one because that’s what she says to do.
When it’s time, Mr. Vassalotti is ready. He’s the closest thing you have to a father. We call him Mr. V and he’s never without his beard. Rumor is he has scars on his face because of a small plane crash he was involved in when he was in the service. He calls you “son” all the time and you like it. I don’t know what Richie, Jr. thinks of his dad calling other classmates son. You’re just thankful he lives on the adjoining block and is willing to teach you how to tie a Windsor knot.
He does it behind you, in a mirror in his office, a place full of wood and things from the past. Wooden mallard ducks sit atop books atop a mahogany desk atop a hardwood maple floor. A globe in a wooden bowl shows Italy, except the boot looks backwards in the reflection of the mirror. Antique cameras and silver-tipped wooden canes rattle when you walk by. You don’t have a tie but Richie, Jr. has plenty. Mr. V uses a thin paisley for the demonstration. That’s the style in the 80s. He closes the door so Richie doesn’t have to watch. I look down at the floor; it matches my pink hi-tops. Mr. V tells me to lift my head and puts his hand gently on my chin, like a barber might. His fingers are smooth. A surprise. I can smell his aftershave. A musky, sweet scent that’s become familiar and comforting, smooth. He ties me up from behind. And he ties again. And again. Always careful not to choke me as he pushes the perfect loop up around my throat. Every time, the knot is perfection, the length rests in the same spot, an inch below my belly button. Mr. V is gentle, his hands hairy. Quite a deviation from my mother’s touch—the sharpness of her nails, the rough calluses. I wonder if my hands will get that way, so hairy yet so smooth, if I’ll be tying ties and keeping wood ducks on my desk and if one day I’ll wear a beard because of scars.
Even now, as the years pile on rather than melt away, I look at strange men, older men, men of a certain age and build and rattled posture, and wonder. The man with no hint of a hairline, alone in a bookstore with his worn copy of Moby Dick and pot of English tea, half-and-half, woody swizzle stick. Is it him? I wonder. The man with the sloping nose, bump at the bridge, like my own. That foreign man who waddles between the stacks, talks to the books and expects an answer or two. Could it possibly be? A man with glasses and tweed. A smoker, fingers brown. Almond-stained hands. Would he wear that shirt? Yellow? And the man who has a mole underneath his lower lip. An Italian man. An Italian man from a place like New Castle, Pennsylvania, rough, rugged, rainy, rusted, spilling out from the depths of my every invention.
What would you look like now, my father, if you were alive today? Would you recognize me? Would I recognize you? Or would your skin fall in a way unfamiliar. Would you be hesitant to approach me? A stranger. Another imposter rolling through my life, a fraud, like my mother, just like most people I tend to meet, who ride the revolving door, the ceiling fan of dysfunction and shame, just like I do, even after those thirty years have passed.
IMAGE: Flickr Creative Commons/Marius Mellebye
This is such a beautiful piece of writing, filled with imagery and feeling within its told story. I am such a fan of Michael’s work.