For You, Dad, You
Billy P. Gee
Blue uniform, every day the same, sometimes jeans, clean each morning, white and brown smears each night, smells of iron and shit, blue uniform day and night.
Pentecostal explosion, embers smolder inside you, and we see no church for years. Eventually Mom makes us Baptist, me and my sister, but you stay home every Sunday. You have to mow. The mower, inhabited by God’s judgment, throws a stone during the song service and breaks the long sliding glass door that looks out over the lake and the distant mountain. Fire and brimstone follow.
Who grows more angry at who? You or God?
The family, her family, gathers together in grandma’s kitchen around a round table clothed by a strawberry-checkered plastic tablecloth, laid with coffee and donuts and dairy creamer. We stay long into Saturday night. For a while you stand off to the side, leaning your dirty blue pants on grandma’s counter, holding coffee and making slow sad jokes. Poking fun at the aunts, you have names for them all. Joking but meaning it, saying just enough to mean it, provoking harm in your harmless way until suddenly offended by all the offended people around the table, you drop your mug into the stainless steel sink and stuff a quick donut into your cheeks. Gagged but still chewing, you fart and hobble fatly off to the living room and sit in the rocking chair and rock with your hands clasped over your belly and you snore. Big round snores compete with hollers of laughter rolling from the kitchen. You never wake, never notice me, silent, alone, sometimes playing with cousins, but always watching you.
You let me come with you on a service call. A thrumming fills my chest. Lightness floods my head. I walk beside you to the truck, a pickup with a cap, the back loaded low with tools, and I grab the silver handle above my head and use both thumbs to push in the big fat black button that sticks and then releases a breeze of metal. I crawl onto the cracked vinyl seat and pull the door. The thick metal slamming shut agrees with my joy and I roll down the window using the round black knob and spin the silver wand so quickly that the thick glass drops heavily down making a thump against the inside of the door. I stick my elbow out the window. Feeling big and grave, I stare in the side mirror, looking at the boy looking back. The truck begins to roll backward over the gravel. Rock-and-Roll gospel music fills the cab. I look both ways. With authority and pride, I say, “Good on my side." You pull out to the left and the truck shudders into gear. At the bottom of the steep hill, you turn right with the sandpits on my side and the cemetery on yours, then the mysterious white building, the old town hall slides by, then down the steep Christy's hill, and right again onto the big road, route 27, with the wide shoulders. The limit is 55. We begin to fly. The wind in my ears and eyes and hair is all there is. I close my eyes. Happy. Twenty times happy. We drive to the job in silence; the Christian Gospel country soft rock and roll hums invisible, beneath the roar of the open window.
A diner. Standing at the counter. Waiting for our order. A splendid yellow day outside. Elmer, New Jersey. Fields upon fields. Thunderous good weather, and last night my son was born. Standing beside you, quiet, hidden by your own face, ordering our eggs, I tell you I cannot believe in this thing: me, a father. How odd in my mouth. You carry the Styrofoam boxes and me, the paper cups of hot coffee, back to the hospital. A silent ride. The morning is ablaze with hope and new life, but you… Your first grandchild breathes. Your only son’s first son weeps, and still you sit like the distant hills with not one sentence, never a word, not a phoneme or even a gesture — with nothing to say?
I thought it would come natural to throw a ball and catch it and swing the bat and hit it and feel the breeze from the bat and breathe the air, the dust and dugout, to breathe them. I have the mitt. I have the ball, but driving in your truck down the unpaved road, the leaves quiver overhead. The sky hangs heavy with gray mist. You try to smile but mumble, "There are try-outs first." You tell me this after weeks and months and years of waiting. All along you always said when I was old enough, I could play. I could play. I would not "try out" to play. I would play. Now, suddenly, there would be try-outs. You bought me the mitt years ago but we have never used it. All my life, all I wanted, for all my days, was time with you. Time to swing, time to catch. Time. But time never comes. I ride on silent and shuddering.
The sun is setting. I run back to the truck. Unable to breathe. You climb in beside me and slap my knee, "You did it! See I told you you could. You're on the team!"
We drive back fast up the dirt roads. Happy, I beg you to play with me when we get home, and more, every night just before dinner. I could learn fast with a little time. I really could. I want to play, right now, before dinner, like the other boys and their Dads. I see them doing it up and down the road, as we drive —neighbors in their yards, snow white flashes shoot back and forth between father and son, brother and brother. Why not us? “Work,” you say. I don’t back down. You sigh, back the truck into the yard, and say, “Okay.”
We get out of the truck and it is going to rain, but we don’t care and my heart feels light. I ask to play out front because I know the other boys driving back will see us out front in the yard, the ball flying back and forth between us. You shout, “Get under it, don’t be scared, it can’t hurt you,” and I try. I get under it and put the glove out, reaching for you, Dad, seeing you smile through the webbing. One ball caught! One thrown! This is how it is. This is it. Beautiful. You smile through the webbing. I see you and see us every night, a joy to come home to this: a boy and his father, out in the yard, a ball passing between them. Then there is a cold hard smack. A sound and white light. On my back, looking up, I see you leaning down, sullen and angry. “Come on. Get up. You’ll be alright. Shake it off. I told you this was dangerous. I told you.” You leave. You go inside. The next day, I'm in the yard at five o’clock, six o’clock, seven o’clock, but you aren’t there. It is only me throwing the ball when the other boys drive by. It is me tossing the ball high in the air, getting beneath it, right there beneath it when it falls.
A week before my wedding you take one day off work. Sunshine falls evenly on the lake. We kayak out to the center. Crests of clouds overhead. Islands, loons, overhanging trees. We stop for lunch, pull our small boats onto a sandy beach and sit on the rocks to eat the half-wet sandwiches and chips. We both sense it. This is one of the only times we’ve spent together. This will be the last time we sit together, alone, in nature, without distractions. We eat from paper bags, happy. You give me this memory: climbing off the rocks and back into the kayak and stepping in, you slip, overturn, fall fast into the water, and standing quickly back up through the waves you smile and laugh and swing back your head whipping water across the surface of the lake and wiping your eyes with fisted hands: a happy child.
In the back of the car, after church on a Sunday, Heather and I ride along singing loud with the music, kicking the seats, fighting with each other, staring out the windows. We are going to visit Grandma. All the cousins are there. We pull into the driveway. You say you aren’t going in. You want us to go with you for a ride, a Sunday ride. I’m excited. This is a surprise: you smile. Your eyes open and look back and forth between the both of us, seeking in our eyes the thrill that this announcement was intended drum up. I give it to you. There’s nothing I want more than Dad, especially when compared to a house full of girls, so I keep my seat belt buckled and sit up straight and say, “Where are we going?” You say “Ice cream.” Heather, offhand, as if it doesn’t matter, blurts out, “I wanna stay with Mom." Your eyes shut just slightly. You grab the wheel with both hands. Mom says, “Just wait and we’ll come and play another time.” Heather, only eight, unthinking, unknowing, persists. “I DON’T want ice cream!” A slap rattles the dashboard. My spine straightens. You cry out, “Fine, you FUCKING BITCH.” New phonetics, unknown vocabularies. Words we can barely define, but we easily take the meaning. We look up from the back seat with wide owl eyes. Your eyes glint madly in the rear view mirror and you address Heather squarely, "Get out. Go with your Mother.” Heather, as if she had wings, starts to fly toward the house. You nearly miss Mom hovering in the driveway as you pull a U-turn. Gravel scatters against the red garage and we thunder out into the road.
Mom says it's time to look for colleges. She brings it up at dinner every night. Eventually, you turn to me and say, “Why don’t we take a road trip? We can look at schools and maybe visit where I grew up and I can teach you how to drive on the big highways.” A little while passes and I am getting into a car. There are few words and infrequent stops except for gas or to consult a map. I drive too, long hours, and you trust me to do it. You even stop clutching the handle of your door. You lean back, adjust the radio…endless miles disappear. Eventually we arrive and walk a big green campus together, you and I, equal in fear, equally intimidated. Later, we eat at a steak house and spend the night in a dormitory then wake up to pale blue skies. We drive on to where you grew up, a placed filled with diners and impenetrable traffic with sometimes seven, even eight lanes. You teach me to drive in the middle just to keep alive. I meet strange family members you've never mentioned. They treat you like a lost son, like a brother. They have a little house in a pretty neighborhood with tarred driveways, and inside, we sit around a table and drink coffee and listen to old stories. Afterwards we wave from the car. Aligned. Quiet. Together.
A day in summer, home from college, I feel the obligation to pay you back for the life you've given me, for all the checks you mail hundreds of miles with the hope that I will become, will be something, anything more than you — an electrician, a plumber, a slave. I try to work for you. Off we go in the morning in the truck, thumping along, the sound of tools bouncing in the back. Something is wrong. I ignore the quiet by reading a book. At the camp we find a simple problem. A blocked pipe. Just one more clog in a summer full of toilet jobs. All summer it has been a plague on Maine that shit refuses to flow. Each time you push it along; except this time the shit refuses to flow. We bring in the snake. The long metal ribbon lays out hundreds of feet across the yard, slithering through pine needles, across the sparse grass, leading through a bathroom window to you. You push the coil through the toilet, down into the pipe. You feed and feed, push and push until it stops. We measure and know it has hit the tank and the blockage is not in the pipe. There is no choice but to open the tank and crawl down into God-knows-what. God only knows what man wants to do this on a summer day at ninety degrees. I'm terrified you will ask me to go down the hole. I keep my eyes averted, but we both know sending me down will do no good. I know nothing useful about what needs to be done at the bottom of any hole. I get you the shovel. You pull up the cover and go down into the pit. Pipes clank. You groan and ask me to throw you a specific piece of piping and some tape. Eventually your head rises again out of the darkness. The sun dances off your glasses. Sweat beads on your brow. You stand up and begin to roll up the snake. Hundreds of feet of filthy shit-smeared metal sitting outside in the hot sun. I try not to touch it, handling it as I would wrangle a viper. You fling your whole self into the job, a massive effort. The coils sing as you spin the spool until, for no apparent reason, something snaps. I can't see where. You had been spinning right along without trouble and then the explosion. A sudden flood of obscenities. A backed up pipe imploding, spewing forth in the summer heat. I scurry around stringing up the snakes, ignoring the shit sticking to my hands, heaping up the tools, rushing as you growl and holler. You mourn your life, your lot in this goddamned place, this fucking goddamned existence. You'd be better off dead. You wish a car would hit you in the street. You drag the snake foot by foot up the hill. You bind and pull and throw until somehow the metal lays spooled in the back of the truck. You promise yourself to die, for the good of the rest of us, to make the world a better place. We ride home. Silence resumes. I pick up my book and stare at the pages, but I do not read a word.
My first nights alone in my first room, just three years old. Snakes lace the floor of my room. Green and pink, glowing neon, hissing and sliding beneath my bed. They reach for me, pull me out from my covers, and carry me away on their backs. I scream as I ride a moving floor of cold bodies. I feel them beneath me, writhing scaly and wet. I scream without pause. I scream with all I can muster. With a jerk, I’m suddenly hanging upside down. The snakes flicker out of the corner of my eyes. The room goes black. It is night and I'm in my room again with no snakes. The tears I’ve been crying run down my forehead. I’m upside down. I look up. You have me by my ankles with one hand. I see your other hand pull back your belt. That snake hisses and flicks and bites. Later, years later, I’m throwing a snowball filled with ice at my cousin’s face, partially by accident, yet partially on purpose. I see his tears. I see you come up over the hill. I stop and run. I dart into grandma's house and try to hide but you find me. You lift me into the air, upside down, face to face with you. I see your face. Your mouth mid-howl. You shake my thin frame against the wall. I blink and open my eyes. The scene refreshes. I see the dog. I see the horse. I see the TV and the truck. All of the them kicked, cursed, launched into the air. The things I have seen you destroy.
You’re lying on your back on the kitchen floor trying to install a new dishwasher. A surprise for mom. The dishwasher refuses to slide into place. It doesn’t fit. It sticks out from the counter half an inch. After half an hour diagnosing the problem, lining up edges, carefully mapping the machine to the space, you give in. You become a big overburdened child in a blue uniform with marks from glue and pipes and dirt dribbling down your belly. I sit at the table reading The Sound and the Fury trying not to look up. You grunt and push and kick. I see you struggling to make sense, with a pencil and tape measure and a level, of a world that refuses to follow the rules. I see. It is you, like the dishwasher, that does not fit. Not at school as a boy, not in military school as a young man with big ears, not as a Christian at any church you’ve ever tried, not at home with the family that does not know you, not at any table with any man, woman or child. The world refuses to let you in. On the floor with the washer in your arms, years of curses fly from your mouth. Years of pain finally transform into specific plans that you share with me. You will take the truck out for a ride. Yes, you, waving your arms soiled with sweat, still bouncing the machine off the linoleum. You will do it. You’ll finally take the truck and rev up the engine to such a speed that at a calculated turn the truck will come unglued from the road. You and the machine and everything will fly over the rail. You will wrap the metal hull of the truck around that tree ever after. You will be free. You, bloody and alone, will sleep. After all the nights awake, snoring unresting on the couch, unsleeping, finally you will rest. You sit up, rising from the linoleum with red eyes and hands, and with one mighty push, the edge of the cabinet yields and the washer slides into place. Victory.
You take your glasses off and wipe your brow. With no expression at all, you look up at me. You forget what you were saying. You stare up at me. A maimed dog. I sit at the table, the orange coffee mug I always use in my hand, trying not to look, trying to read, to breathe, to keep breathing, to remember there is not always this. There is another dad, the other one who shows me nothing, who says nothing, the quiet man, the stoic man, the one I know, hard and silent like a tree.
About the author:
Billy P. Gee grew up in Maine where religion, long winters and idyllic summers drove him to write stories. Billy has published a novella in Mung Being Magazine and has placed poetry and stories in three chapbooks: Minnemingo Review, Raven's Loft, and Palpable Writer. Billy lives and writes in Chicago.