It’s winter. Or, at least, it’s wintery. I’m wearing my pajamas, just out of bed. I’m also wearing jeans and a sweater with a green Christmas tree on it. It’s Saturday morning. It’s Christmas morning. It’s any day of any week and I am 5 years old. The constant is the house. Well, not so much a house. In reality, it’s one of three apartments that make up the small building on May Street. The building is constructed of graying brick, and a collective stoop stretches across the front of it giving way to three equally spaced doors. The door on the farthest right is ours.
I’m lying on my stomach across the hardwood floor of the kitchen. He is sitting on a chair pulled out and away from the table. Between is a slot car track, each of its wired controllers in our possession. It isn’t one of the expensive tracks with jumps and falling boulders and hazardous pits and sound effects. This track is a simple figure-8, and the mild humming of the electrical current is the only sound as the cars make their way around it.
He has a human form, but no face. A flat blank pallet sits atop his shoulders, which continue to grow outward and broad before shrinking inward and twisted. As I stare at the empty canvas, a wild assortment of hair shoots out of the top of it, rapidly shifting colors and styles. Kind eyes appear, then tired, then concerned, then distracted. A nose begins to protrude, growing long and short in rhythm, like the playing of an accordion. The mouth finally manifests, and it never fluctuates. A straight line cut across his warping face, displaying no discernible amount of pleasure or dismay.
We race our cars for as long as I choose to remember.
I’m fifteen. My mom has asked me and my younger brother out of our separate bedrooms and into the kitchen. As a rule, the three of us generally talk in passing and in short bursts. This may be our first town hall assembly. A State of the Thompson Family address. We join her at the round, wooden table tucked neatly into the small dining room of our house on 44th Street. The two dogs, one small, rotund and white and the other, large, black, and timid, circle the table, assuming we are using it for its intended purpose.
We sit cautiously, and wait for her to begin.
“I just wanted to let you guys know,” she starts slowly, our uncertainty clearly hereditary, “that I’ve been talking to your dad. He said he’d like to come visit you sometime, if you wanted him to. Would you want him to do that?”
I search inward to all the empty places in my mind that that word – dad – is supposed to fill. I find nothing substantial: ambivalence, a small bubbling pond of disdain, a mild electrical hum, a fragmented family portrait. No reservoir of yearning can be found, no thimble’s worth of wonder. Not even a droplet of desire stains the white carpet.
As I await some kind of response from the deepest recesses of my mind, my brother speaks up.
“I want to meet him.” My brother is twelve years old. Ten years later, he would say the same thing again. I would feel nothing once more.
I again look inward. That’s one vote for yes. As I pull and look behind bits of gray, I find something, a small red ember, clinging to life. As I observe it, it begins to swell. The flames burn ferociously, and their heat impresses upon me. Then they speak to me. “Think of all the birthdays, all the Christmases, all the good report cards he’s missed. Think of what he owes you.” The s sound takes shape, serpentine and hissing.
“I guess I’d be fine with it.”
I’m younger now, sitting in the back seat of the two door Toyota Tercel. My brother is next to me, both of our mouths numb with Novocaine. As is custom during this time, I’ve escaped the dentist’s excavation with no scheduling of a second appointment necessary. The same can’t be said for my brother, whose teeth are never free from the oppressive might of the cavity.
“Eric, you have to start brushing your teeth more. I can’t afford to keep paying for all these fillings. It’s too much.”
“But doesn’t dad pay for that kind of stuff for us?” I ask.
“He’s supposed to pay for your medical and dental bills,” she replies, curtly.
“He doesn’t do it?”
“Can’t he get arrested for that or something?” my brother inquires, both of us still young enough to believe in the absolute moral right and the punishable moral wrong.
“I’ve taken him to court twice to get him to pay for your bills, but he never does it. It’s too expensive to keep taking him to court just for him to not do it again.”
After leaving the dentist’s office, Mom stops at McDonald’s without us even asking. Once home, we devour our meals and race into our shared bedroom to watch wrestling. Mom sits alone in the living room watching TV until her eyes grow weary. She retires to her bedroom.
It’s the first week of June and the last week of third grade. Teachers, smart as they are, recognize the class’ collective longing gaze out towards the playground and lessen the workload during the waning moments of the school year. On this day, the craft supplies have been pulled out and spilled across the five tables in the classroom. Old, crusty bottles of Elmer’s glue stand statuesque in the centers of tables while weathered crayons, most missing their paper encasing entirely, and worn colored pencils take residence in small baskets.
Piles of pristine construction paper are found at each table, a cavalcade of blues, oranges, reds, and yellows. Glitter is available, but not without the teacher’s guidance, as it always ends up littered across the floor when trusted to our little hands. A request from the janitorial staff, no doubt.
“Today, kids,” starts Mrs. Jennings, “we are going to be making Father’s Day cards. It’s not for a few weeks though, so you’ll have to ask your mothers to hide it until the right time. Feel free to use all the items in front of you to make the best card you can. I’ll be walking around and observing, so raise your hands if you have any questions.”
As my classmates eagerly begin work on their cards, I stare blankly at the red construction paper in front of me. I don’t know what to do. I sit there, hoping to go unnoticed. I hear a faint, mechanical hum and turn to look as a boy uses the electric pencil sharpner on the teacher’s desk. It isn’t long before Mrs. Jennings notices me and waddles over.
“Why haven’t you started, Scott?”
“I don’t have a dad.”
“Everyone has a dad,” she so forthrightly announces before taking a moment and suggesting “Why don’t you make one for your grandpa?”
I agree and begin work on the card for my grandpa. For no particular reason, I make a turkey on it by drawing the outline of my hand.
It’s a Saturday night in August, and I am eleven years old. My mom is baby sitting my two younger cousins while my uncle and aunt have something called “date night.” It is late, and my cousins, along with my brother, are already asleep. I’m playing my Game Boy while mom watches TV. I’m not paying much mind to it, but it sounds like something important has happened. In brief moments of reprieve, I’ll glance up towards the screen, my mom entranced by it, to see reporters and news anchors talking about someone dying. Something about a princess and paparazzi.
Mom continues to watch as I continue to play, both of us whittling deep into the nighttime hours. It’s after midnight when, finally, there is a knock at the front door. My uncle Gerald has returned to pick up his slumbering children. They awake begrudgingly and stumble out into the cool air, ready to resume their sleeping as soon as they buckle in to the backseat.
As Gerald walks in, he says hi to me, his breath sour, and stares at the TV.
“Have they announced if she’s dead yet?”
“No, not for sure. But everyone seems to think she is.”
“Well, that’s what she gets. She should have never gotten divorced.”
Noticeable even to me, that sentence hangs heavily in the air, acrid and spiteful. It is gaseous, filling our living room in place of oxygen. Silence seems to hold as my mom looks at her brother, completely exposed. I pause my game and look in their direction, stifled.
“Well, you know what I mean,” he offers. “Thanks again for watching them. I’ll see you later.”
My mom shuts the door and pauses there for a moment. The briefest of moments, a rare moment in which she appears vulnerable to me. Uncertain. It passes in an instant, and she reaches for the remote and turns off the TV.
“Time for bed, Scott.”
My cell phone buzzes. I’m 25 and living in the house that I own. The buzz signals a text message, and I look down to see that it is from my brother. It reads:
I found dad on Facebook. It doesn’t look like he’s updated his page in a while, but he has us listed under his family category. I guess he lives in Maryland now. I sent him a message and he sent one back to me. I could copy it and email it to you if you want. Do you want me to?
Again, that empty feeling returns. Just as was the case ten years ago, thinking about him returns no identifiable emotion, no extreme one way or the other. This man is a stranger to me. You may as well pull a name from the phone book and ask me if I’d like to call it and invite it to dinner.
Still, curiosity can’t be denied, so I text him back “sure.” I load Gmail and wait for the email to manifest. Within minutes, it appears. I watch it sitting innocuously for a while, the subject and sender bold and highlighted signifying that it is unread. But should it stay unread? Once read, the words can never be unread again.
I open the email and read the following:
Hey Eric, this is Wayne. How you doing? Not really sure what to say, for obvious reasons, lol. Sorry you got my nose and not ur mom’s, her’s was always cuter. From the pic’s I saw of you on ur page I can see you have grown into a handsome young man. So tell me, what are ur plans for the future?… career, starting a family of ur own, etc. I would really do want to get to know you and scott as well, but was scared to, thank you ! I always had you guys n my heart an on my mind. I live in Stoney Beach,MD,with my wife Kristie and her son chase, chase is 8yrs old. My number is [REDACTED] if you ever just want to talk, DO MISS MY SONS !! AND HAS ALWAYS WISHED THE BEST FOR YOU BOTH!
My cell phone buzzes. I’m still 25. This time it’s a call from my mom.
“Hi, Scott. Whatcha doin’?” She asks flippantly.
“Not much, just about to cut the grass. What’s up?”
“Well, do you remember how your dad messaged Eric a few weeks ago?”
No, mom, I forgot about the first time Dad had talked to us since he left 20 years ago. “Yeah, did he message him again or something?”
“No, his new wife messaged him.”
“Wait, what? Why?”
“She told Eric that he should never come visit his dad. That he is a liar and that he hits her. She said that I was smart to get out when I did.”
“Are you serious? Holy shit. Is that stuff true? Was dad like that?”
“He never hit me, but he did lie. All the time. He told me he grew up in a completely different town than he really did. He would tell me about cars that he never owned. He never wanted me to meet his family or friends, I think because he knew that the truth would come out. I never understood it. He would lie about the dumbest things, anything. He was such a weirdo.”
After she hangs up, I sit and think about the “weirdo” for some time. I think about him sitting in that kitchen chair, faceless and shape-shifting, holding down the trigger on the controller for his slot car. The humming returns and I lay across the hardwood floor, racing him. This fractured and incomplete memory is all I have.