In my earliest recollection of childhood, I feign sleep in the back seat of a car. Through a veil of eyelashes, I watch motes of dust circulate in a shaft of sunlight like something astral. I remain like that a long time–in wonder of the dust–when I hear my mother tell my father that I never smile anymore. Her words wound me and I clamp my eyes tightly. My brother doesn’t seem to be there, so I figure we must be in Colorado.
I’m unaware of my father’s exact response to my mother. I’m sure it was dismissive. He used to guilt me about my past happiness, often telling the story of how I walked around with his pipe in my mouth as a toddler and made everyone laugh. I had no defense against these allegations. What he really seemed to be asking was “why don’t you love me anymore?” I couldn’t answer him because, of course, I still did.
At first my love for him was complete and unconditional. He was a giant to me and I believed everything he said–his outlandish tales of skies blackened with pheasants or how he and his friends used to jump on the backs of the buffalo fish that swam in the river. It all seemed perfectly plausible to me and I saw it all as a vivid dream in my mind.
On summer evenings while my mother was at work, he would place a radio outside tuned to a rock station. My brother and I ran in excited circles while he juggled. If he dropped one of the balls, one of us would retrieve it for him. He called it “shagging.” He could do four at a time and would toss the balls over his shoulder or behind his back. Sometimes he would amuse us by walking around the yard on his hands with his hairy legs in the air. It was a circus that made my brother and me get wilder as the evening progressed. “I know this music is affecting you boys,” he would say, “but you need to calm down a little bit.” We kept at it until we were forced inside by darkness or mosquitoes. Then we would jump on the furniture until we passed out in a heap somewhere and he carried us into our rooms.
My father worked very hard. I always felt sorry for him when he came home filthy and beaten down by his labors. I greeted him as lovingly as I could, but with a certain tentativeness because I knew how easily his anger could boil over. His face on the hottest days would be flushed with milky sweat running down. He would set his lunchbox and six-pack on the floor. Then he would smile at me wearily before bending down to untie the laces of his steel-toed boots. Each boot would drop to the floor with a thud and flakes of concrete would crackle on the linoleum. His jeans were stained gray and crumbs of the stuff clung to the hair on his arms. Sometimes you could see it on his eyebrows and even his eyelashes. He would strip himself naked on the spot leaving his clothes in a pile for my mother to deal with. Then he would stride across the living room with his penis hanging pendulously between his legs. While he was in the shower, I would look at the pile of clothes, his lunch box, the scattered dust and his work boots. My father’s boots were heavy, the leather worn. There was a presence to them. These articles caked in concrete suggested hard work and manhood, ordeals I was exempted from because I was only a little boy. That was what my father was to me, a man. And it seemed a terrible thing to have to become.