My Father’s Deliverance
Throughout my early childhood, my devoted father passionately labored alone nights and weekends on his personal project in his studio at the back of our little green house on Corliss Street. He typically kept me at a painful distance from his brilliant, secret activities, though he liked to know I was duly impressed by his important work. Twice, he had taken me into his confidence inside his dusty study. (My mother called the book-lined room his shrine and was reluctant to enter, even to vacuum.) He’d latched the door and regaled me about how the world should be and how people should behave. Big changes were needed. He knew the arrangements that ought to be made, he was sure. Smart people like us can see the center of the Universe, he seemed to say. When you know the hub, you understand the proper form of the spokes and wheel. You can set everything up just so.
To the world outside our home, my father generally appeared as a small, handsome, energetic man of German and Dutch ancestry. He had bright blue eyes, a full head of yellow-brown hair, and a practice of overdressing (cheap, white shirts and, often, a cranberry color clip-on tie, even around the house.) In reality, he was a crafty god whose unnamable mission had compelled his reluctant descent to our trying world. He was terribly put off by life’s defects, which he tended to see as design flaws that would have long since been corrected had people simply played their roles earnestly and well. In public, he had learned to hide his chronic dissatisfaction with the folks he encountered behind a supple façade of intelligent good humor. Most of the time, his great gift for mimicry allowed him to pass undetected among ordinary folks who called him clever and “creative” and accepted him as the sort of man who might occasionally color outside the lines just for the fun of it. They knew nothing of his raging rejection of their shamefully compromised accommodations with life. He kept all that well hidden.
By day, my father was a capable, if unremarkable, Quality Assurance Inspector at Providential Plastics—the stinky factory was an easy twenty-minute drive south in the direction of Massachusetts. He was considered quite normal by his somewhat inattentive coworkers. Only the family knew how, in his off hours, in his private workspace, his ideas swirled and crystallized, dissolved and crystallized anew. Secret agonies were punctuated by periodic breakthroughs—heralded by shrieks of triumph echoing from his study throughout our house, only to be followed again by long weeks of quiet concentration.
From the dawn of my awareness, I knew my family and I enjoyed extraordinary privilege. Touched from above in a way others could not dream of, we were not like the others. We suffered in special ways, too. One terrifying June evening in my ninth year my father brought our unique burden into high relief with an after dinner presentation of his work. Attendance was compulsory for the whole family. Under strict, intimidating orders, my mother, my sister Pam, and I all dutifully clumped around him in the living room before our cold fireplace.
“I reject the rigid viewpoints that shackled our ancestors!” my father boomed, his accustomed public reticence thoroughly scorned and discarded. His broad chest heaved. His blue eyes flashed. How he thrilled me! Suddenly he was a great orator. He could have been addressing a crowd of thousands, not merely us three. He paced before the hearth, turned, and punched one palm with his fist. As he spoke, he brushed again and again at the stubborn lock of his blond hair which fell repeatedly into his eyes. “We allow obsolete habits to limit us pointlessly,” he roared. “We will soon see past the absurd limitations that cause war and famine.” He thumped his chest like a football player celebrating a touchdown, play-polished his fingernails against his sweater, then snapped some imaginary suspenders. “We will correct society through the natural potential of the human mind.”
My cautious and attentive mother smoothed her yellow dress over her knees. Her lips grew thin and from time to time formed tiny smiles in response to the mounting and easing of my father’s furious rhythms. She had not bargained for such volatility in the man she’d married. Later, I understood she had not bargained at all but succumbed to my father’s courting in a state of simple-minded dazzlement. Recent events had compelled her to a fuller recognition of the threat my father posed to her ordinary hopes. She now reserved many afternoons to mourn in private the death of her girlhood dreams of a tranquil domesticity, lying down in her bedroom with the shades down and the door shut for lengthy naps.
“At last we have achieved that degree of paralysis and decay necessary to open the path to the greater reality,” my father pronounced. He jounced on his toes, clearly delighted with his own jarring proclamation. My mother, my sister Pam, and I, all dutifully seated on the sofa, were once again hopelessly outpaced and forced off balance by his bold assertions. “Decay.” “Paralysis.” “Greater reality.” Who could think of such things? He was fantastic, a generous seer, eager to spill for us the contents of his mental cornucopia. “All this is not what limits us,” my father said, sweeping his arm in a high arc over the lamps and furniture and drapery in our living room. “The material world does not bound the human spirit. It’s what we have here, in our hearts and souls.” He beat his chest with one fist. “This is where the sickness of civilization lies.”
How my head whirled! How my heart ached! Ordinary things: furniture, and carpeting, the house, and the people in it, seemed so real and important to me. But no! The more significant reality was hidden. Only he could bring the true substance to light.
My father switched to his airy whisper of prophesy. “I shall provide Humankind with the key to spiritual perfection which we, as leftovers of the post-Industrial Age, can’t begin to imagine. It’s the only way Humankind can survive. It is the way to peace in the world.”
My plump-cheeked little sister Pam squirmed and flushed. My mother said, “Perhaps Reverend Flythe would be interested in your ideas. I know he’s concerned about world peace.”
My father laughed, scoffing. My practical-minded, good-hearted mother suffered the limitations of a conventional imagination and would never understand my father’s great burden and responsibility.
* * *
At the age of nine, I was ferociously proud of my father’s awesome double nature and thoroughly delighted whenever I was allowed into his glorious presence. He enjoyed my worshipful regard immensely. My loyalty was unquestioned. Our commitment to protect and support one another was non-negotiable and this formed for me a kind of heart-armor which allowed me to face situations in other parts of my life that might otherwise have been unbearable. I had somehow already understood his big exertions would inevitably expose his private vulnerabilities and he would need special help from me as we moved ahead. Our unspoken pact of mutual regard and support made me loyally secretive about any inadequacies or shortcomings I might have noticed.
My mother and my sister Pam had very different views of my father and his radical project. They wanted a quiet, reliable man who would be attentive to their everyday preferences, a “good provider,” who would promote the stability of the household. My mother especially loved peace, quiet, and the routine predictability of life’s daily cycles. My father’s surprise proclamations and urgent demands and his chronic inaccessibility had become burdens for her. In quiet indignation, my mother sometimes pointed out to me that none of my father’s “great accomplishments” ever took form in the real world and that no one understood him. Socially anxious Pam, who was just eight at the time, was embarrassed by our father’s oddness. She wanted him to play golf and drink beer like other fathers. For his thirty-ninth birthday, she persuaded our mother to buy him a sweat suit with a brown stripe up the side of the pants and a pair of running shoes, which he, of course, had no use for. She begged him to buy a sports car and grow sideburns. She wanted a father her friends would appreciate and wouldn’t be afraid of.
I, alone, maintained unshakeable belief in our father’s extraordinary lifework. I knew for sure big, big things were afoot. I was eager to help him in every way I could.
* * *
At first frost, my father’s fabulous project halted suddenly. That icy October, he changed overnight from secret genius into dull conformist, stubbornly punctual, absurdly bland and self-mockingly tedious “normal man.” The shock of deprivation ruined me. The feeling was like glorying in a wonderful toboggan ride then hitting a tree straight on and coming to a violent, concussive stop. At the dinner table, he would now speak calmly and with apparently genuine interest of the marriages and school careers of his coworkers’ children and various possible rearrangements of our furniture. He suggested he might repaint the living room, or, even, plant a hedge! His vacuous pose made me frantic. Where was the revolutionary genius I loved? How had this overly modest false front come to dominate? He should be glorying in his powers, not yielding to the tedious.
I was wildly impatient to get past this fallow time. He must be simply resting from greatness, I told myself, “fitting in” for short-term practical purposes while off-scene his spirit rejuvenated in preparation for the real work ahead. Then, as I reflected further on what this spiritually static period might mean and where it might lead, I was terrified.
In that disturbed season, Death was knocking us living entities aside like so many bowling pins. Hadn’t our cat been struck down without warning, dying “on the operating table” when all that was wrong with her was an abscessed tooth? Grandma had gone, at her home, without my having been informed until much later. Outside, even the trees were entering their self-protective winter crouch and their leaves were dying and falling on all sides. Fending death off was our full-time obligation, I could plainly see. So, why would my father embrace a living death?
As I understood, living required willpower and passion. Breathing and the beating of the heart were not completely involuntary. The lungs needed the committed support of a willful spirit to keep going. A person had to want to thrive. And my father had lost his will to stand out. He had turned away from magic and grandeur, lost color and dimension. A blight with no name I’d ever heard had stilled his spirit. He was becoming static—a part of life’s background.
I felt profoundly cheated. Had some terrible bargain been struck without my knowledge? Was his sudden surrender due to exhaustion? Loss of nerve? Some complex internal self-betrayal? Or was some other mysterious incapacity deflecting him from his path of glory?
I brooded in stiff-lipped silence. Without my father’s inspiration, my daily life became a joyless, anxiety-riven struggle of will.
Visions of death consumed me. In those days of private agony, I perversely imagined death could “grow.” Normal life was withering. Death was advancing within our home and within my own body and mind like a fungus that thrives in darkness and takes over where sun dwellers have abandoned the field. In a terrible recurring nightmare, poison vines of enchantment wound and drooped over the walls and furniture of my bedroom. The vines creaked like ship rigging. They climbed my bed, lifted my covers and wove themselves into the small hairs close to my skin. Like tiny, chilly hands, these pale tendrils wrapped and held my most delicate parts.
I awoke from the death dream suddenly, panicked, my pulse racing, my breath coming only with difficulty. I tried to rise. The death-stems held me down, like the threads of the Lilliputians.
* * *
That winter of deprivation and terror our sometime baby sitter, Mrs. Apfeldt, became my single solace. Mrs. Apfeldt was an artist who used to occasionally reward me with deep hugs against her pillowy breasts if I would sit quietly and let her draw in peace when she was supposed to be watching Pam and me. Our parents never went out anymore so there was no need for Mrs. Apfeldt to come and babysit us now. I missed her. She lived just four doors over so I could sneak through back yards to her house. My mother disapproved of these visits. “You shouldn’t bother that poor old woman,” my mother said. “Hasn’t she suffered enough in life already?”
I was welcomed into Mrs. Apfeldt’s charmed world at any hour. I didn’t have to knock when I arrived at her house, but I always did. I would happily water Mrs. Apfeldt’s houseplants or chip ice from her walkway if she would help me fight back the death-feeling. She did this by baking cookies, keeping her thermostat just a little bit high, playing jazz on her stereo, hugging me once in a while but, most of all, by allowing me to watch her fingers dance across the page as she drew with pencil or charcoal or wielded her brush and paints. In her warm, creative presence, I was able to breathe more fully. I would sometimes smile and my smile was not completely false.
I believed Mrs. Apfeldt understood death could encroach on the interior space a person needed to live and breathe. Above her fireplace hung a painting of a family of five. A handsome man wearing a camel hair jacket, white shirt, and necktie held his arm around the waist of a woman who looked very much like a much younger Mrs. Apfeldt. Three grown children, a boy and two girls, stood before them—all dressed up and smiling, the pure expression of any mother’s fond hopes. When Mrs. Apfeldt saw me silently querying her for some sign of how to take this composition of ghosts, her habitual smile faded. She rose and walked to the front room. In the settee of the bay window, she faced outward toward the snow-covered front yard. She bowed her head. She knew not to speak to me of her sorrows. I was only ten years old but I had already learned human suffering is often overwhelming and our deepest pain must usually be left unmentioned, which is not the same as unacknowledged.
The fourth week in February, we had a wonderful blizzard. In the morning, I led my mother to believe I was going sledding with friends my own age, then detoured through deep, fresh drifts to Mrs. Apfeldt’s house. The sky was white, the sun eye-burning brilliant. The temperature hovered near thirty-seven. Even my breath was white and brightly lit.
I left my sled by Mrs. Apfeldt’s back door and entered her warm living room. Once I was out of my snowsuit, Mrs. Apfeldt returned to her easel. On her canvas she had painted a moon above a restless night sea but I saw much more.
* * *
Three months of nothingness followed. My real father remained in hiding. His stubbornly modest stand-in continued to exasperate me to distraction. My “father” spent a fog-cloaked Saturday in May on his knees in the front yard plucking crab grass. I watched from my bedroom window, aghast. I didn’t dare criticize him to his face though I wanted to. He had already wasted the better part of my year. What insipid time-waster would he take up next? Watching football on television? Listening to country western music? Changing his own oil in the driveway?
Later that cursed May afternoon, while kneading a meatloaf, my mother told me Mrs. Apfeldt had suffered a heart attack and died. I wanted to race to her house but there was no point, my mother said. I was too late. Mrs. Apfeldt’s cremated remains had already been buried in the cemetery near the stadium. The bowling pins of life, it seemed to me, were being knocked down on all sides, unpredictably, without explanation or sense.
After dinner, I gave up all resistance and joined my mother and Pam in the living room before the TV. I hoped conventional behavior and family closeness would steady my jangling emotions. Barefoot, in shorts and t-shirts, Pam and I lay side-by-side on the living room carpet, our heads propped on matching triangular pillows, our hips almost touching. Our resolute mother quietly resewed shirt buttons, her dark-haired head bowed beneath the pharmacy lamp.
Then, a big surprise! My father came into the living room and dropped onto one end of our nubbly green sofa. Our mother, made suspicious by his uncharacteristic appearance in this most ordinary of settings, gazed curiously at his yellow sandpaper cheeks and restless, blue eyes. My father worked at adjusting the pillows, crossing his legs one way, then the other, making a show of trying to get comfortable, as though deliberately communicating his desire and intention to fit in among us in the usual world. This effort was foredoomed, I knew. No matter how he rearranged material details, my father would never be comfortable.
He remained on the sofa through several car commercials, studiously simulating normal human behavior. Bits of reflected television light moved in his eyes. He was watching commercials but not as most of us do. Common promotional messages on screens could not affect him—he was attending to different concerns and using other media altogether.
He jumped up suddenly, suggesting he had just recalled urgent business elsewhere. He raced from the room. My sister and mother remained in the glow of the television. I followed my father through the house toward his studio at the rear. My hope for miracles awoke and quivered painfully inside my chest, then, like a ruby-throated hummingbird, fluttered up my neck and clogged my gorge. As he was about to pull the door shut behind himself, he noticed me, lurking in the kitchen. My hope loomed as big as the sun. His eyes steadied on me. He must have read my passion on my face. He must have sensed my “need to know.” But he clicked the door closed and left me as bereft as any dog locked outside in a rainstorm.
“My girlfriend Cindy says he’s going to get fired and we’ll have to go on welfare and move to a slum,” Pam said when I’d wandered listlessly back to the living room. We all looked toward the empty space where my father had sat on the sofa.
“Nonsense!” our mother snapped, but not too loud. “Show some respect. He needs our love and support more than ever.” Then, more weakly, “Your father is working very hard.” Her voice trailed off as doubt consumed her.
“She has to say she thinks he’s okay,” Pam said to me a short while later up in my room. “She knows he’s going ’round the bend.” She knocked the side of her head with her knuckles. “Cuckoo. Cuckoo,” she said. I patted a spot beside me on the bed but she wouldn’t sit. I wanted her to stop saying these things. She was so mad at our father we could hardly talk to each other. Still, we loved each other a lot.
When my father tapped at my open door, Pam took one fierce look and marched past him down the hall to her room. “Do you have a couple of minutes to talk?” my father asked me.
“Sure, Dad,” I said. “’course.”
He sat on the red leatherette recliner he’d given me when he’d bought his new easy chair. He bowed his head and examined the scarred pad of his right thumb. His large, admirably hairy hands bore many scars, proof of his great experience. I knew about the scars, the J-shaped one on his thumb from a fishing knife accident, a straight, pale line across the back of the same hand where he’d been cut by the fender of my falling bicycle. He’d broken his wrist once in a Jeep accident in the army, I’d heard. The flesh in that area retained some strange wrinkles.
“A real man does not succumb to the mediocrity of his era,” my father said.
“We are approaching a new dawn. Soon, nothing will be as it was.”
I squirmed. Could he please fill in some details! But I was too afraid to ask.
He bowed his head. I heard a sound that was almost a sob. When he looked up at me his face was wet. “Jerry, I need your help.”
“Sure, Dad. Anything I could do.”
He gave me an evaluating glance then seemed to address not me but the air and the sky beyond our little house. “Tell your mother . . .” He waved one hand in the air and closed it suddenly as though trapping a firefly. “Tell her I am rooted in a deeper and more fundamental reality than she will ever be able to conceive of. No, don’t say that. Tell her if I’m causing her pain I’m sorry. I don’t want to hurt anyone. I’m just doing what I have to do.”
I agreed to try.
“I do it all out of love, you know,” he said.
“I know you do.”
“It’s not just you and your sister and your mother I love. I love the town. And the state and country. I love the world. I love the universe. That’s why I cannot yield.” He looked me in the eye. I was starting to cry. “You’re a good boy,” he said. His hand approached as though he were going to tousle my hair but he didn’t complete the gesture. He got up and started for the door.
“Does it have to be like this?” I asked through my tears.
He stared at me for several seconds. He then took out his wallet and gave me a five dollar bill.
* * *
The next big lurch downward came the October of my eleventh year, days before a midweek Halloween. Throughout dinner, provocative but incomprehensible murmurings spilled from my father’s lips like fish falling over the edge of a flooding dam. During desert (canned peaches in syrup), my father fell into one of his old-time fits of blinking, then became wholly absorbed in the study of the wrinkles in his lap.
Finally, he raised his gaze and declared in bitter sobriety that the compromises he had made to accommodate his job as Quality Assurance Inspector at Providential Plastics were no longer acceptable. “I am through playing their game,” he said. “Getting paid” had become an absurdity. The meaningless abstract incentive called money could no longer justify his squandering precious time working in an institution so flawed and disappointing. Pride and destiny demanded much more.
My mother and sister and I were frightened into lock-kneed muteness as he exposed these monumental obstacles to his continuing employment. We necessarily believed his conflicts could be worked out and the money we all relied upon would continue to come.
* * *
Each morning now my father engaged in a protracted ritual of windshield cleaning. He had not quit his job yet, though that could happen any day. Often, long after we believed he had driven out to Providential Plastics, my mother or Pam or I would find him in the garage, working with tiny instruments: gauze pads and dental scrapers and toothbrushes, trying to clean the windshield to his own, likely unattainable, standards.
By November, he was spending entire days polishing the windshield and not going into work at all. On Thanksgiving (Out of discretion, my mother had trimmed the guest list even smaller than usual. There would be only the four of us,) I looked in on him while he labored with a cotton puff in a tiny circular motion just below the support for the central rearview mirror. He was up on the hood, in sock feet, sweat pants and wearing orange rubber knee protectors.
By this time, I was well aware nothing was ever as it seemed with my father. Yes, he appeared to be in the garage, kneeling on the hood of the Buick, vigorously polishing the windshield glass. His true self was engaged in an intense and fateful battle with supernatural forces in another universe I could not see. He bore a terrible responsibility in this higher realm. The problem of time, for example, and the construction of the future, including tomorrow’s sunrise and the germination of next season’s crops. Yes, my father had gained direct access to the exquisite mysteries. He now stood naked in the sunshine of this powerful and terrible knowledge which only a few had ever glimpsed. He was burning with conviction and purpose, but the sacrifices demanded by his extraordinary role were incalculable. Never-ending disturbance of the soul was the price he paid for participation in his higher calling. But all that couldn’t excuse him from his responsibilities in the here and now. He had a family to provide for. He had me, his loyal son, who needed a real father.
I was eleven and a half now and a little bit full of myself. My mother had already called me “the little man of the house.” I felt the family emergency demanded I attempt valiant intervention. My father hated being challenged or questioned in any way. But it had to be done. The risk was worth it. We were not so fragile! “Dad, are you sure you’re doing the right thing?” I asked, fully aware of the danger of such impertinence.
My father’s nostrils flared. His eyes tightened in a self-sheltering squint. Put off by my disloyalty, my father withdrew even deeper within himself. I hated his dismissing me. Could he not see I was different from the others? I wanted so much for him to understand. He ought to listen to me, I bravely reasoned. I wanted only the best for him. My ideas were potentially helpful, I thought, and deserved to be heard.
But my father turned away and rubbed the windshield glass harder. He shifted the angle of his fingers slightly. An eerie ringing sound arose. He made his cleansing ovals faster. The noise soared and swooped.
* * *
The weather turned cold. My father moved his studies from the drafty, book-lined back room to the living room and the TV. While the furnace rattled and the snow piled up, my father practiced deep video study while lying in his reclining easy chair with the foot support up. He’d cover himself with a blanket, raise a little tent on his lap with his hands, and suck on peppermint and butterscotch sour balls while he watched. He had detected suspicious, minute, only apparently superfluous, gestures in the movement of female rear ends during lady’s professional tennis matches. These nearly undetectable twitches and clenches embodied a previously unknown, cuneiform-like language, he told me (when we were alone and he could escape disapproving scowls). Unknown beings from remote regions were guiding us through these critical times with hints and intimations that must not be missed. A shiver, a clench, a momentary tipping of the pelvis or thrusting of the midriff, these were priceless clues only he could interpret. He took notes and even made occasional sketches.
At other times, afternoon sports car races and cooking shows induced profound mental torpor. When he was most deeply engrossed, his breath slowed. Once, seeing him in this distracted condition, I panicked and called my mother to come look. She assured me that, though she wasn’t happy about it, this houseplant-like behavior was perfectly safe and nothing to worry about. In later years, I judged our mother harshly. I thought she should have observed and acknowledged what was going on in our home and taken steps to protect and guide us, a mother’s ordinary role. That didn’t happen.
* * *
Through late winter and early spring, my father moved increasingly beyond my reach. He still knew I was around—I could tell this from his avoidance maneuvers such as glimpsing me, then switching suddenly to the path around the house and using the back door. It wasn’t always me in particular he was avoiding. He shied away from Pam and my mother, too. He avoided any contact which might disturb the fragile and precious chrysalis of dream which now encased his life and his ever more inward-folding consciousness. Unfortunately for my own sorry state of mind, I had inherited from my father the kind of heart which inevitably yearned for the unattainable and, as my father slipped farther from my grasp, my wish to be close with him in an ordinary father-and-son way intensified.
My twelfth April, at the time of crocuses and dirty, smelly, melting snowdrifts, my father scavenged the woodsy fringes of our neighborhood for fallen pine boughs. Day after day, he hauled home great branches and piled them in the garage. He did this work on foot. (After several minor accidents, he had given up driving.) The pine branches mounded ever higher, displacing both cars from the garage.
My father constructed a canopy of the pine boughs, a sort of indoor arbor, inside the garage next to his one-time workbench, where he had once enjoyed tinkering with small machines, for example, fixing a broken food processor. (It had just needed a new cord.) But he had stepped far beyond the realm of household appliances now. His new understanding called him to make a nest for himself, as a deer or other woodland creature might.
Soon, he was spending his nights within the pine bower, curled up on his side on the garage floor. Sometimes, when I was sure my mother was otherwise occupied, I would sneak out to the garage and study him in his sleep. This felt painfully remote, like I was observing him through a telescope. Still, I was fascinated to be able to look directly at him for an extended period. (Something I was afraid and embarrassed to try when he was awake.) I wanted very much to figure out what was going on with him and take the appropriate corrective action. Every situation was redeemable in some way—he and I both believed that, though our ideas of what redemption amounted to would have probably clashed. My effort to determine the right adjustment went nowhere. My brain rattled on uselessly. I was unable to decipher his great private drama in a way that would allow me to believe I knew the first thing about how to help him. The fruit of all this anxious speculation was negligible and the effort exhausted me. My schoolwork suffered. I often fell asleep in gym class. My grades nosedived and, due to intense distraction, I got my first D, in arithmetic.
In June, my father hit upon wearing a lamb’s wool vest under his clothes, even on the warmest of days. This mortification of the body served him well and, for a time, he was often seen strutting slowly down Main Street, arms puffed to the sides, still in conventional dress, face fixed in a subtle and mysterious smile, plain and public evidence of his pleasure as he gradually attuned himself with God.
Soon, my father required a deeper transformation. On the Fourth of July, he arrived home shirtless with a dozen, rusted fishing lures arrayed across his chest like military medals, the barbed hooks tucked through his flesh, dark traces of blood dripping. On that day, though my mother and sister and I dared not speak of it, we knew he had crossed a great divide.
* * *
My mother now supported the family by managing a downtown lunch-only deli, work she did humorlessly and with fierce natural aplomb, hiring and firing the college-age slackers with the cool conviction of someone who’d been at it for a lifetime, though she’d been on the job just a few months. She might be naturally gifted at management but she resented having to do this work and let us all know of her feeling. She made a show of clinging to hope my father would recover his capacity for practical matters but I knew better and Pam knew better and I suspected that, in her sorrow-filled heart-of-hearts, our mother did, too.
In the following weeks, my father became a true wanderer and disappeared for extended periods, sometimes overnight, more than once for several days in a row. Through concerned neighbors and friends, rumors would reach us he’d been seen chasing golf balls at the country club or he’d fitted out a small rowboat and was quietly sculling about Silver Lake in the middle of the night, gazing in hopeful reverie across the still, dark water. My heart always ached for him during his disappearances. I wanted him to come back whole and fulfilled, having made his inner peace. I wanted him to know me, to take a hearty and possibly even helpful interest in my young life, which had its own troubles.
We all wanted to believe he was suffering (for our own reassurance, to help us accept and bear up under our own daily burdens) but he now rarely showed any sign of distress. He was smiling. He was happy. Little things, like dirt and hunger and open sores didn’t bother him at all. He enjoyed his nighttime locations, under a highway bridge, on the hard packed soil by the side of the Merrimack River. That people now considered him deeply weird mattered to him not a bit. He had established the greater communication. He was on the path to transcendence, just as he had always predicted. Who were we to nag him about earthly details, like taking a bath or trimming his toenails? And why would he care about the opinions and judgements of the small-minded people who were so thoroughly lacking in any kind of vision or personal purpose? He was his own star in his own sky. Should he really allow himself to be judged by the ants?
Some suggested he had turned into a bum and was now wandering around aimlessly in Boston or Lawrence or Leominster, like any of the legion of homeless people with their shopping carts and ragged bed rolls. This was, of course, unbearable to me and I kept the image from my thoughts and turned my back on people who said such things.
Shortly after daybreak, one Saturday, late in that enchanted, anarchic summer, a bemused, female police officer with a tremendous physique brought my father home on a gardener’s complaint that he’d laid his weary head for the night among the pines in Horace Greeley Park. This was illegal, though not so rare for many people in the summertime. There must be more to the complaint, I knew.
My father stood beside the broad-shouldered blue-uniformed police officer, shirtless, on the front porch, the skin of his small, bony chest weathered to pink leather. He had given up conventional clothing and now wore a white, muslin loin garment with the loose end tossed over his left shoulder, imitating the popular image of Mohandas K. Gandhi. His jowl oozed blood where he’d scraped himself shinnying up a drain pipe. He didn’t put on his glasses anymore. What would he need glasses for? He’d given up reading almost half a year before.
The officer explained to my mother and me that his crimes included disturbing a deer lick on private property and lining up small pieces of colored glass to be crushed on the tracks by the Boston and Maine commuter train. My mother’s cheeks bloomed painfully red as she endured this absurd litany of my father’s offenses. In spite of all we’d been through, she would never be completely beyond embarrassment.
The patient police officer didn’t bother with a trespassing citation but she flexed her big arms showily and extracted from my mother her pledge to control my father’s free-ranging movements in the future. My mother agreed easily, like a dog-owner paying lip service to an impractical leash law. She knew she had no hope of fulfilling this promise. The police officer presented a paper which my mother signed without reading. What else could she do?
When the police officer had left we withdrew to our living room. Pam came down from her bedroom and joined the family gathering, biting her lip and frowning in great concern.
My mother took my father’s head in her large, strong hands and kissed him with a “smork” between the eyes. She then held him at arm’s length and sighed mightily. “Oh, Bill. Bill. Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill,” she said.
He gazed upward and beat his eyelids like an enraptured saint.
My mother stood up, unfastened her apron, and laid it over the back of her chair. She looked at our father a little longer, then released a sigh of such duration and force it seemed to me it might shake the house and the ground and cause permanent damage. She then went out the kitchen door to the side yard to soothe herself. She found time spent among the forsythia blooms sustaining.
Soon, I was in my bed, crying.
* * *
My father had adopted new, cat-like patterns which enabled him to move about the house undetected and even leave the neighborhood with no sound or trace. At times, we suspected he was padding about without touching the floor. At other times, he still thumped and banged like an ordinary person as he moved around the house. No one knew for sure if he really could melt through walls or if he had trap doors and secret passages or if he had simply become so much lighter and less material his activities could completely escape our notice.
He still wielded astonishing power. When I caught sight of him, my heart would leap, then, when I confronted the stubborn impossibility of closer contact, a frightening abiding sorrow would come over me. I wanted desperately to go back to the time when I had loved him without doubt or fear, when his greatness had been written plainly in my heart and mind and in the sky and everywhere and no one ever had reason to question or challenge him.
I still believed I should be able to reach my father. I was taking a more mature and responsible attitude. The fault for this great separation was mine, the task of somehow bridging the great chasm mine as well. Some clever new approach would overcome the baffling, ever-changing obstacles he presented to our contact. It must still be possible for me to feel his sincere hug. I needed his warm assurances and believable indications of his comprehension. Yet, in cold moments of rational reflection, I suspected the father I yearned to embrace no longer existed, had, perhaps, never existed except in the potent tease of self-deception churned up by my fervid imagination. Such “insight” turned my world into an ice bath.
This final period ended tragically and the fault was mine. My ordinary teenage-boy need to prove the independence of my will and the discreteness of my personality now required a solid force to bear against, a cutting edge of conflict on which to test-sever my family ties. I knew my father was too brittle for such essential rites but my need was overwhelming. I had to try. Unlike my mother, who now communicated with my father mostly through small notes stuck to the fridge, I, at the threshold of adult strength, was growing daily more determined to confront him face-to-face and even, if possible, “man-to-man.” We needed to talk out our interpersonal issues the way I believed other fathers and sons did, face to face, discussing our actual relationship and feelings for one another. This would be complicated and not completely satisfactory. On some points we would “agree to disagree.” We would probably stomp and snarl at one another, then renegotiate our way of being together and affirm forever our everlasting respect and love.
With these high hopes and needs firmly in mind, I searched him out. I found him seated in a meditative pose in the back yard beneath the trembling white and purple lilacs, eyes closed, legs folded so the soles of his bare feet faced the sky, hands pressed together before his chest in the cosmic mudra.
As I approached my father, he tipped his head back and looked upward. I also looked upward and appreciated the beautiful, blue, cloud-dotted sky. He pressed a palm to his slightly hollowed chest. From inside his garment, he withdrew a small card and gave it to me. On the card he had written, “Mystic messages in bottles formed from pure energy arrive daily from lost continents and planets, passing effortlessly through time and space, creating a sacred burden which we can allude to but must not speak of.”
My anger surged. “Sacred burden!” “Must not speak of!” I shuddered with frustration. “I’m a teenage boy,” I said. “I need a father.”
He rose to a crabbed crouch and waved me aside. The sharp shoving gesture of his arm was exaggerated, deliberately overdone, I later concluded, to mean exactly the opposite of what it appeared to on the surface. Yes, he was pushing me away from himself in physical terms. He was widening the eternal, unbridgeable gap between us. But it was not rejection he meant for me. No, his fervent wish was for my spiritual liberation, my free-standing independence as a conscious entity. He waved me aside with that superficially harsh gesture precisely because he wanted to clutch me to his bosom.
That’s when I poked him in the ribs.
I hadn’t meant to hit him hard. My driving force was more exasperation than hostility. Unfortunately, I hit him so hard he went sprawling like a floppy-limbed puppy.
He recovered his feet slowly, his head hanging, his eyes sweeping up and down my body. His cramped, wounded, judgmental frown achieved his aim, convinced me I had irrevocably defiled the holy, utterly disgraced the family, definitively transgressed the ultimate boundary of decency.
I was shamed. I couldn’t apologize, though I knew it was required. At that time, I could not swallow so much pride. (Later in life, I learned to swallow a thousand times more.)
Confused, and disappointed beyond ordinary calculation, I skulked away to my room.
* * *
One Saturday morning in strawberry season, my father left the house very early, pedaling rapidly off on his bike into the sweet morning mist. Alerted by the huff of the bike tire pump, I abandoned my half-eaten eggs and hurried out to my own bike to find he was already halfway down the block. He was wearing ordinary jeans and a black t-shirt and a yellow helmet. I followed him anxiously, maintaining just enough distance to escape his notice. He was impressively graceful and fast and I put my effort into keeping the pace. We passed out Pine Hill Road, by Flint’s Pond, then onto smaller, roads. This was a magnificent New Hampshire fall morning. The air was sweet and glorious. Our winding route led through an orchard where gnarled, gray apple trees stooped like old men.
I strained at my pedals. I was soon breathing hard and sweating sourly. I was surprised and impressed by my father’s speed. He had always been vigorous. His energy was undiminished. I worked hard to maintain my distance. I had been struggling all my life to keep up with him. I mustn’t let him escape me now.
We passed a blood-red silo, nestled in a tuck of green valley beside a dairy farmer’s dilapidated barn. The farmer was at work in the hay with a pitchfork. Just out of the farmer’s sight, my father hopped a barbed-wire fence, ignored a No Trespassing sign, and took the farmer’s private dirt road up into the hilly pasture. His bike raised a yellow rooster tail of dust. A few cows on the slope turned lazily to follow his progress. He kept pumping. I, too, lifted my bike over the fence. I was forced to pause momentarily to release my jeans which had snagged on a barb. I hopped back on and pedaled hard. Now that my father’s route was rougher he seemed to accelerate. That was no surprise, really. He’d always been energized by difficulty. Never a shirker. Defiant of life’s obstacles. His commitment seemed supremely admirable to me now but I would have begged him to stop. I was exhausted in every way. I couldn’t catch up with him. I couldn’t guess where he was headed. I wished he would at least slow down, give me a chance to recover my breath, and allow me some time for my ordinary thoughts and speculations to catch up with his incomprehensible activity.
On the ridge top, he wobbled on the dusty road. I followed his yellow dust for another mile until he veered off, lay the bike down, and disappeared into a thicket of yellow grass. I dropped my bike and followed his sounds of rustling grass and crackling twigs.
I spied him perched atop a grassy hummock with a great view of a tree-lined valley. His eyes were closed, his cheeks tensed into a faint smile. Clouds parted and a magnificent curtain of sunlight draped him. My father was surpassingly serene, a beacon of love and conviction. I ached with admiration for him.
A hawk was spiraling in the valley beneath us. My father’s eyes opened wide. He stood up. His arms spread to the sides and for an unbearable, anxious, moment I was afraid my father was about to step off the cliff, spread his “wings” and attempt to follow the hawk.
Instead, the hawk came to him, alighting on a branch not twenty feet away. The hawk was missing several tail feathers. I couldn’t be sure but he might have been missing a toe. My father considered the hawk. The hawk looked back, cocking its head first to one side then to the other, showing off his powerful beak. My father did pretty much the same thing.
They had a lot in common, these two old birds, neither one part of any flock, both bearing permanent wounds. Both still strong and capable of sustained flight.
When the old hawk finally labored into the air, my father’s hands rose after it, making a nest shape with his upraised fingers, suggesting his love.
If I had known then that my father was about to vanish forever from our lives I might have found the courage to present myself forcefully. I could have walked right up to him and demanded he acknowledge me as a struggling boy. I could have, probably should have, apologized for having slugged him. But I was too uncertain of myself, too this way and that way, too likely to make a pointless, awkward mess.
I snuck off to my bicycle without making myself known, my need for a definitive psychic separation from my old man deeply and permanently confounded.
* * *
Weeks passed, then months. No news came. My mother and sister and I were somehow unsurprised by the manner of my father’s final disappearance. Countless small changes had gradually reduced his participation in our unbearably flawed world. One more small adjustment had allowed him to slip behind the curtain. We would see him no more.
Though saddened and inevitably wishing I could have played my role better, I welcomed the new peace his disappearance brought. The buffeting of my father’s urgent proclamations and baffling demands had overburdened me. I was an ordinary boy, not equipped for compelling visions and secret communications from afar. I knew I had lost the most precious component of my life. But it had to be so. I was just Jerry now, the bookish sixth-grader. As my mother wished, I was ready to spend time with friends my own age. I would read comic books, make plastic models of ships and rockets, and try to bring up my grades, as she often gently pleaded. I was ready to leave dreams of the impossible behind.
But my father is always in my mind. Even now, two decades later, I never forget him, not even for a minute. I know, in some strange and astonishing way, he has achieved his dream of teleportation and carried himself to other planets. He is battling dangerous demons from the far reaches of other galaxies, using thought-control to protect humankind and “The Future.” When, at the corner of my eye, I see a flash of orange among the clouds, for me, that’s him. He has joined the sun, taken up his role in maintaining the forward movement of time.