A Family Man

At his funeral, little snippets of memory crowd in.  They stack up on each other, shape shifting into life with my Daddy.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

Craning my neck, staring into the sun, I watch my daddy step slowly toward the tip of the 5- meter diving board; watch his mouth count out one, two, three.  He lifts his right knee on four, jumps hard with both heels at the very end, toes hanging over the edge, and lifts his body high into the air.  Suspended for a long moment, he jacks his body in half, outstretched arms reaching for stiffened legs, encircling his calves with his hands.  He straightens, pushes his legs behind him and cuts the surface with his praying hands, a bubble of a splash marks where his body enters the water.

“That, Slim, is a jackknife full pike position.  Try it,” Daddy shouts as he pops up to the surface.

We move onto the grass behind the board and, side by side, walk through the steps.  Lurching forward after the four count, I grab my skinny ankles and feel my hamstrings tighten.  Daddy limps beside me, his shorter leg more obvious on the grass than on the board, and counts the steps.

“Thatta’ girl.  That’s it.  Now bounce.  Bounce hard.  Throw those arms up and just follow them around.  Good, now let’s try it on the diving board.”

Up on the board, I look down at him waiting for me in the deep end.  I panic.

“I can’t do it, Daddy.  It’s too high up here.  Come get me down.”

“There is only one way down, Donna Lee.  I am right here.  Just do what I showed you, do what you practiced.  Follow your arms and I’ll be right here waiting.  Ready?  One, two, three, up bounce and…”

I land right next to him, splashing and thrashing and grinning.  He lets me launch myself off his cocked knee and I swim fast to the side, ready to dive again.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

A patch of green felt, a remnant from last Christmas, lies on the kitchen table and serves as the landing strip for the two white dice that Daddy rolls over and over again.  He calls out the numbers, “Seven, four, eleven, three, seven, seven…” as I write them down in his black composition book, forming the columns just like he showed me.  My fingers are starting to cramp as the hours roll by like the dice.  We take a break only when he refreshes his shot glass with a little more Christian Brothers.  He says the same thing each time, “Just a splash to get my heart pumping.”  We resume the ritual.  The last time I looked it was 10:35.  In the morning.

“Let’s give it a break, Slim.  I need to make some calculations.”  He says this as he pushes back the kitchen chair, sober as a judge despite the fact the brandy bottle is more than half gone, with the seal that was broken that morning still sitting by it.  He never seems to get loaded when he is perfecting his system for craps.  All the math, I suppose.

He does the permutations long hand, trying to figure out the probability of rolling certain combinations of dice.  Crazy smart, my daddy.  He plans to take his system to Vegas and make us rich once and for all.  He is sure he can beat the House.  He wants to get in fast, win it and leave before they kick him out forever, the way they do the card memorizers.  It’s a contest, I think, about who’ll kick him out first, Momma or Vegas.  I’m sure not taking any bets on it.

“If I do win, you’ll get the lion’s share, Donna Lee, for being so patient and helping me here.  Now go fix us a bologna sandwich on white bread for lunch, would you? Don’t skimp on the Best Foods, either.  And I could use a beer chaser here.”

When lunch is done, I’m ready to roll again.  But I look over and see Daddy “resting his eyes” on the sofa.  That usually means we’re done for the day.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

He’s a circus freak, my Daddy, a carnie, a Ripley’s Believe It or Not item.  For one thing, he can hide a White Owls cigar box completely under his rib cage after he pulls in his belly.  Really.  Just a corner sticks out when he shoves it up there, holding in his breath until he about turns blue.  He can bend his pointer finger all the way to almost touch the back of his hand and he can push his thumb forward so that it reaches below his wrist and skims his forearm.

His best trick involves the tattooed lady on that forearm, the one he got on his first tour of duty with the Marines, before the war started.  All he brought back from his second tour, during the war, was thirteen bullet holes he collected from the Japs at Guadalcanal.  He left behind his natural teeth and two inches of his right leg.

He can make that tattoo lady do a dance, right there on his arm, just by flexing his muscles.  She moves her hips back and forth, and moves her chest up and down.  Her almost naked body is covered by a bluish purple tattooed veil.  Undulating.  That’s what Daddy calls it.  Undulating.   He sings while he makes her move, “There’s a place in France, when the ladies do a dance, and the dance they do, costs $1.92.”

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

Mitch Miller has nothing on my dad.  We don’t even need a bouncing ball to follow his lead on all the songs he’s taught us.  Accompanied by Daddy’s  harmonica playing, I belt out the first song I ever learned,

From the Halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, we will fight our country’s battle on the land and on the seas.”  Then real loud, “First to fight for right and FREEEEEEDOM….”

After that, at least on the night he’s home and sober enough, he tucks me in, smelling like man-sweat and beer breath.  In his Irish tenor, he sings Johnny Verbeck.  Seems Johnny, he built a machine that turns the neighborhood pets into sausages to sell in his butcher shop, until…

“One day the machine got broken, the darn thing wouldn’t go,

So Johnny Verbeck, he crawled inside to see what made it so.

And then his wife had a nightmare, came walking in her sleep. 

She gave the crank a heck of a yank and Johnny Verbeck was MEAT.”

I go to sleep thinking about poor old Johnny who’ll “Never no more be seen, he’s been ground to sausages in his very own machine.”

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

“Just play along, Betty.  Kids?  You ready?”

My mother sets her jaw, starts to argue, then changes her mind and puts a dopey look on her face.  We all follow suit, from the backseat, becoming mouth breathers with droopy eyes. We press our faces against the car windows.  I hold up Rusty, our Chihuahua mix, to gaze out the car window with us.

Daddy puts his baseball cap on backward, the bill heading south on his sunburned neck, grips the steering wheel at 2 and 10, pushes his false teeth half out of his mouth to maximum buck, and honks his horn.

When the car passes, staring at us because we have out-of-staate license plates here in the Deep South, we press our contorted faces against the windows.  Daddy gives them a wave as they sail by.  Everyone in the car ahead, including the driver, turn around to see the California freaks.

“Clem Caddiddlehopper and his beautiful family,” Daddy howls.  “That’ll give ‘em something to talk about over ham hocks and grits tonight. “

It makes us laugh every time we do it.  This is our favorite thing about the trip.  Better than the Snake House in the Kansas City Zoo.  Better than finding a seedless watermelon.  The beautiful family of Clem Caddiddlehopper himself.

.         .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

Hanging up the pay phone in my college dorm, I think about the strange conversation I’ve just had with Momma about Alden, my boyfriend, the one I left at home when I started college. She answered the phone at Alden’s house when I called his mom about his emergency surgery last night.  Momma says she is helping out there, Alden came through just fine, Daddy’s coming up to bring me home to see him while he recovers.  Then she hangs up quick.   Coming to see me?  Coming for a visit, driving 500 miles, coming here from out-of-the-blue?

I see my Daddy’s big white Ford pick-up pull into the parking lot of my college dorm.  I see him park right below my second floor dorm window and slowly, stiffly step down from the driver’s side.  His mouth twists down as he drops his smoke to the ground, grinding and grinding it out with his heel.

Seeing his face, I know.

Flying down the two stories of cement steps, I hear my disembodied shouts echo in the stairwell, “He’s not DEAD, Daddy – he’s NOT dead, No, No, No…” over and over and over.

No longer able to stand, I crouch against him, sobbing and screaming.   He pulls me up and holds me tightly.

“Baby girl. Baby girl. It ain’t always this hard.  I promise.”

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

Patrick looks bored shitless as he watches my Dad go through the box, picking out ribbons and medals and trophies one-by-one.

“This is the one she got for winning the 50 meter freestyle for the 12 and unders at the Junior Olympics.”  Dad says as he holds up a frayed, yellowing string attached to the top of a limp blue ribbon.

Grabbing a trophy the size of a four year old, he says, “This big one here, it’s for the State Championships in Original Oratory.  Won two years running.  Where did that other one go?” He rummages around in the cardboard box at his feet.

Pat pretends to be interested, knows it will go faster if he does, but draws the line at going through the old program from my high school graduation ceremony, with my name underlined in red every time it appears.  He’s dated me for three years and has probably seen this mess ten times.

“Oh, yeah.  You showed me that last time.  Very impressive.”

I think of the psychology class I have just finished senior year at my “fancy” college.  The one where I learned about family constellations and dysfunction, about a concept called addiction. I am just beginning to realize that there are words out there to describe the screwed up things that people do.  “Overachiever.”  That’s another label I’ve learned.

“Can I bring you another beer, Daddy?”  But I’m really thinking, Can I hit you over the head with a hammer and put us all out of our misery?

“Ah, hell, yes,” Daddy says.  “It’s five o’clock somewhere.”

Later that night, out by the dike, our local make-out spot, Pat teases, “I’ll give you a blue ribbon if you give me a blow job.”

I accept the challenge.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

Daddy and I face off over the Formica table in the kitchen of my first married lady apartment.   Pat is sleeping; the T.V. just signed off with the Star Spangled banner.  Daddy asks me for another belt of brandy.

“Let’s call it quits tonight, Dad.  We’ll go see Momma together in the morning…”

“She tossed me out.  Can you believe it?”

“Yep.”

“I mean, thirty years, you jus’ don’t finisss..”

“Dad, we’ll figure it out later.  You can sleep on the couch.  C’mon, let’s go to bed.”

“She’s the best thing ever happen to me.  I’d be a bum on the streets without her, y’know? All I ever wanted was to have myself a family, y’know?  Jus’ my own lil family like I never got when I was growin’ up.”

“I know, Daddy.  I know.  She’ll cool down.  Now come on to bed.  No more booze for now.”

“Good idea, baby girl.  Good idea.”

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .                       .

“Slow down, please, Daddy.  My boys are in the back seat.”

“Don’t get your knickers in a knot, Donna Lee.  There is no need to get so worked up.  I am a very careful driver. “

Looking in the rearview mirror, he addresses my five and seven year-old sons in the back seat, “Boys, you like Pa driving fast, right? “

Without waiting for a response, Dad revs the 360 replacement engine on his ’65 Chevy Super Sport, a car that suits a 17 year old gang member better than my pop.   The smell of gas from the exhaust overpowers the smell of brandy on his breath.  He revs again, glancing sidewise at the giggling teens in the Volkswagen Bug next to us at the stop sign.   He wags his eyebrows at the girls, who giggle again.  He beats their car off the line.

“Let’s ditch school, boys and go shoot pool.  Maybe we can ditch this your momma too.”

“Watch the road, Daddy.  ”

“I liked it better when you were too young for boys and too old for toys, Donna Lee.  You were more fun then.”

“Don’t I know it?  Anyway, we’re here.  Just drop us off, please and take yourself home safely.”

I pull the boys out of the backseat.  He tips his ever present straw hat in our direction, guns the engine and peels out.  My boys laugh and applaud.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

“Get me outta here. “ Daddy says, pushing himself up on the hospital bed.  His thin gown barely covers his skinny thighs and a swollen belly.  I see the ropes of varicose veins bulge on his calves and ankles.

“Daddy, I can’t yet.  Maybe tomorrow.”

“I can’t stand it.  I feel like hell.  Why am I here?”  He stares at me, confused, his skin a sickening greenish-mustard color.

“Do you remember going after Mama with Grannie’s cast iron skillet last night?”

He has the grace to look sheepish, but the confusion stays in his eyes.  Rapid fire mood shifts darken, and then lighten his face.

He grins, “Did I hit her?”

“Thank God, no.  But you scared us all.”

“Why did I do that?”  He puts his head down into his hands.

“It’s complicated, Daddy.  Your dialysis isn’t working so good.  You aren’t thinking too clearly. And the booze doesn’t help, you know?”

“Well, get me outta here anyway.” Belligerent again.

“I will, Daddy.  I will.  Settle down now.”

The male nurse comes in, squirts something into the IV bag hanging above his strapped left arm.  Daddy slumps.  I gently ease him backward as he closes his eyes and falls asleep instantly.

“He’ll be out for a while now.  Why don’t you come back in the morning?”

The nurse kindly and firmly starts escorting me to the door.  I break away, go back to his bedside and stand beside Daddy for a moment.  His discolored face is twisted in pain, even as he sleeps. I kiss his forehead.

Heading for the exit, I count my steps, one, two, three.  On the fourth count, I fight the urge to pounce, to lift myself up as if I were on the end of the diving board, lift and push off, following my arms right into the deep end.  Instead, I walk quietly out the door.

.           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .           .

All alone, tied to his bed in the psych ward… that’s just no way for a family man to die.Image

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10 Responses to A Family Man

  1. Shaina says:

    As always I feel like I know your father, thanks to your writing. You are very talented, thanks for giving us these glimpses into you. I will look for more

  2. Shelli Smith says:

    As in the theater, long after an excellent film ends and you’re somehow pinned to your seat, I found myself sitting speechless, processing my emotions. Donna Lee. Thank you for sharing her with me.

  3. Thatta’ girl, Slim!

  4. Marianne M Porter says:

    Beautiful and haunting. Stirs up lots of memories for me. Thanks for letting us know you’re still at it and doing it so well. I’ll continue to check for more gems.

  5. Pam Jackson says:

    Oh, Donna…

  6. Anita says:

    I look forward to reading all your entries, Donna- this first one, has left me in deep space.

  7. Matthias Mengelkoch says:

    Oh my. I look forward to reading more as well. Thanks Donna.

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