I was seven, and my mother was a nurse, working for her brother, Doctor Hurn, whom all the cousins and myself called Uncle Doc. We lived in a tiny apartment behind his office on a street lined with Bois d’Arc trees. In our kitchen, of an afternoon, sometimes my Mom, Uncle Doc, and Doctor Pickett would drink coffee, on the formica table by the back door, where, in those days, an iceman brought a block of ice with iron tongs, and a milkman brought cool milk in bottles. So that was a long time ago.
Images of 1940’s screen sirens still haunted the atmosphere, because when my father came for an unheard-of visit, my mother is dressed to the nines, and holding her lipsticked mouth in a dour pout, in unhappy emulation of non-smiling movie stars. It was a poor job, bless her heart. Photos captured this sorry moment. I can see that she wanted to impress him, and I’m sure it failed.
It is summer. I’m wearing cut-off jeans, no shoes, no shirt, a skinny kid with a blond burr haircut. This sorry meeting, at the time, was a big highlight for me. My mother must have expected him, but it surprised me, interrupting a marble game with Ricky Moyer. My father took me to dinner than night at the TexMex Cafe in nearby Wichita Falls, and I ate enchiladas for the first time. I liked them.
At age eleven, I was scheduled to visit my father in Galveston. He phoned a day before, and called it off, speaking only with my mother. She was very angry. She told me I was unhappy, and perhaps I was. But at twelve, I did visit, flying on an airplane with a note pinned to my shirt.
In high school, he came through town, picking me up in a souped-up Mercury, with a vacuum gauge, which monitored gas mileage. Kind of a contradiction, that gauge. We spent the night at some farm, where I wasted the morning attempting to shoot an air rifle with a bent sight, while the grown-ups talked and talked and talked.
In college years, my mother and brothers visited him for an afternoon. He and I chatted in a roadside park. And the summer that I worked in Huntsville prision, I visited to show off my prison-guard uniform. He was building a garage, and had smashed his hand, and I was very little help.
Five visits. One, two, three, four, five. Count them on one hand.
In 1974, now thirty, I thought it time to get into communication. I called him up. He answered, surprised. We chatted. Another time I called again. We chatted. Then one time he called me. We chatted. And then one time I called him and we chatted. That doesn’t sound very interesting, now, does it? That’s because it wasn’t. It wasn’t very interesting at all.
For these conversations were one-sided. If I asked him a question, he answered at length, very forthcoming with lots of details and side issues. If he asked me a question, he’d interrupt within the first two sentences, and then carry on at length, full of details and side issues. Kind of a pattern. Not much fun.
We sent a couple of letters back and forth. He didn’t interrupt me when I was writing a letter; but his incoming letters were the same monologues. I’d been cast as an extra who’d wandered by accident onto the soundstage of the Jack Show.
One more phone call, just to check. Yup, that’s how it was.
After these calls, did I feel good? I did not. Were they beneficial? They were not. Was there any reason to continue? There was not.
Thus the last communications I had with my worthless father. Some years later, he died, leaving a shack of a house filled with stuff he’d collected. Heaps, and boxes, and bins, like a third-world second-hand store. I found seventeen pocket-knives in one compartment. Some were OK, some were broken, some rusted, but none in use. None … living, you might say.
And that was his life: an absence of memories, and a collection of random objects, of no utility, no sense, no beauty. A fellow I missed a lot, yearned to love, and never knew.
So long. I’m sorry I didn’t know you. I’m sure there was some good in there, that I just failed to see.