[A couple of words about my old man]
One good morning, I drag myself out of bed at 7:30 AM. It’s late in my father’s house, and I have been waking slowly to the sounds of my father and his wife talking and laughing together for a while, the cat yowling, their coffee cups scraping on their saucers. I stumble to the bathroom, then out into the living room in my pjs.
“He lives!” my dad says, big grin on his face, same tired joke he’s been making since I was a little kid.
His wife, Theresa, smiles at me from her overstuffed chair, cappuccino in hand, sheep skin slippers on her feet, her ancient Siamese cat Rosie Belle scowling up at me from her lap. Even I can’t begrudge Theresa her sweet spot right next to the wood stove—even on her days off, Theresa works longer and harder than my Dad and I put together. She is both Catholic and Republican, yet somehow we’ve never argued. She’s only ever treated me with kindness, kindness I can’t fathom.
“You must be sore today,” she says “how are your legs?”
Each month, my father’s gym has a stationary bike race– people post their times for completing a computerized ‘course’ to compete for a prize. Each year, when I visit, I go to the gym with my father and destroy the competition, winning not just my age group but the entire thing, not by seconds, but by minutes. And my Dad fucking loves it. I don’t think he called me when I graduated from Simon’s Rock and I know he didn’t call me when I graduated from CU and we weren’t even speaking when I got my Master’s. Despite multiple protestations over the last ten years that in order to maintain a relationship with me, all he has to do is call me on Christmas and my birthday, he never calls me on Christmas and only sometimes grudgingly calls me on my birthday. But I win a dumb exercise bike race at an old people’s gym in a tiny town, and he gets pumped: “Hello, can we get someone over here to verify his time? My son has just done it again!”
Yesterday, I gutted the 35 to 55 category (to which I have just graduated) by a four minute margin and beat the best time overall by 54 seconds. It’s a small victory– last year’s prize was a pair of wool socks– but I’m not above small victories these days.
As an answer to Theresa’s question, I bust out five fast, deep squats, to hoots and guffaws from both Theresa and my Dad. I knew I was feeling well enough to fake a couple of squats for their benefit but I’m surprised by how I feel. My legs don’t feel okay or even good, they feel great, fresh, hungry for more.
It’s an odd business, going to the gym with my father. His bag is packed the night before– cotton T-shirt with the sleeves ripped off, headband, short shorts, water bottle from his last surgery. After we check in and change, he retrieves a workout sheet, clipboard and pencil from the desk, warms up on the bike for ten minutes and then diligently goes through his workout, completing each exercise in order, tracking his progress on his little checklist. He is the most methodical person I’ve ever known.
I warm up on the bike for a couple of minutes or race a circuit or forgo the bike to warm up with abs or don’t warm up at all, just hit the weights cold or do pull-ups or 21s or whatever I think will hurt the most. When I don’t wake up sore, I feel like I wasted my time the day before. I bounce around from exercise to exercise, doing rows, triceps, lat pulldowns, squats, push/pull routines, circuits, staggered weights and reps, blasting my core till I cramp and feel torn, anything to catch my body off guard and do some damage I will have to heal from and then come back stronger, faster, harder to kill.
Visit by visit, year by year, my father is not just bigger but also stronger than me. His biceps are thick, round and dense, like young hardwood trees; mine, on a good day, could be described as ‘cute’ and are oddly bald, the hair only starting above the elbow, then uneven patches of thicker hair on the backs of my arms as if I were still going through puberty. His hands are massive, knuckles as round and gnarled as the walnuts he used to crack with his bare hands, enormous pulsing veins rolling up his arms, that vein in the crook of his arm as thick as my little finger. My hands are the hands of a high school junior, strong but soft and clean. No, that’s not entirely right–when I look closely, I can see the scars. And I can still see them covered in blood, my own and others’.
My father’s legs are his triumph– no wonder he wears those silly short shorts, he should, and I would, too. Decades after he’s run his last marathon, his calves and thighs still ripple with muscle; severe, deep striations in his pale, hairy legs like rough carvings in wood. Though I’m the tallest man here, though I can run 62 miles at a stretch, though I’ve run marathon after marathon, my legs are still laughable, the legs of a freshman baseball player, the legs of a Kinko’s manager.
My father’s legs throw up massive amounts of steel, those hands and forearms and arms are still dangerously strong, that pillar of a trunk… I don’t sneak a peek at his crotch when we’re changing afterwards in the mens’ room because I don’t even need to look at his cock to know that it’s bigger than mine. My Dad trumps me, as he has always trumped me, as he will always trump me. Rather than depressing me or making me angry, it comforts me. Each time in the last three plus years that I’ve come here — home?– I’m a little bigger, a little faster, a little stronger, a little harder to exhaust… but also somehow more relaxed, more confident, more patient. Yes, my father can best me. But it doesn’t bother me because my Dad is a hell of a guy. And he’s mine.
I have failed to be like my father again and again. Having read every single other book in the house, my father read the dictionary at fourteen; I didn’t make it through the A’s. He tore a Model T Ford completely apart when he was eighteen, cleaned every single part, every nut, every bolt and then put it back together. I tried to fix a rusted patch on the door of the lemon Ford Bronco II I’d bought and never finished it. His university added a wing so that he could continue his physics experiments; Simon’s Rock nearly kicked me out for serial violations of the school’s alcohol policy. My later failures are more understandable, if still bitter for me, as by fourteen or fifteen I had already decided that my life would be the complete opposite of his, that the only thing we would share was my hated last name. Later, I considered changing even that just so I would be entirely free of him.
At 25, we had spent less than a month together in the previous ten years; we hadn’t spoken a word to each other in five years. Then my family awkwardly and reluctantly gathered in California for Tatyana’s wedding. While we awkwardly watched Tatyana’s new baby Mika crawling in the dirt after the wedding, I was dismayed to notice that I planted my hands on my hips in the exact same way my father did.
Later, after we had started putting things back together, I accidentally painted my room the exact same shade of lemon yellow he painted his house. And we had independently settled on the exact same model of electric toothbrush.
In one bizarre conversation, I surprised us both by admitting that I envied his life: tidy little house, cedar hot tub in the deck, shop in the garage, wood stove, fussy old cat, a wife who loved him. I shouldn’t have been surprised when he trumped me, surprising me more by revealing that he envied me my life: no money, true, but no responsibility; no plan for the future but no obligations; zero security and absolute freedom.
We don’t go to the gym this morning, but linger over oatmeal with raisins and sunflower seeds and a second cup of coffee. It’s not enough food and I’m not satisfied but then, I’m never satisfied. I am the Unsatisfiable Hunger, the Unquenchable Thirst, and I’m pretty well used to it by now.
On the way out to the car, I snag a couple of fresh persimmons from Theresa’s tree in the front yard. They’re curious fruit. They look like orange tomatoes, and this early in the season, they’re harder than unripe pears. Still, they taste so amazing– like honey and melon and citrus– that it’s as if they are made-up, some ancient fruit from before sin.
It was a mistake for my father to marry my mother. The first time he told me that, I hated him for saying it, instantly and for years afterwards. I mean, I hated him already but I hated him with new, specific fire for saying that: “I never should have married your mother.” It took me until now—almost exactly 20 years since they separated—to figure out what he meant. He wasn’t saying that no one should have married my mother, that she was a vile witch no man could tolerate, that she was an unmarriageable monstrosity who should have been bricked into a high tower with no staircase or buried alive in a tomb so that no man should ever gaze upon her. He was saying that he shouldn’t have married her. Which is probably right. And also: she shouldn’t have married him.
It was a mistake. A big mistake. Out of which came me. And Tatyana. And Tashina—not literally, they didn’t create her meat, but that epic mistake of my mother and father marrying the exact wrong person created that person I love more than almost anyone on earth, my sister Tashina, as much as it created Tatyana and me. And then Mika. And Brianna. And Koko. And Kai. That’s seven people, created by mistake. Seven people so far. There will be more.
If you think about it, my parents really blew it. My father made the mistake of marrying my mother and my mother made the mistake of marrying him and those perfectly matched mistakes had pretty wide-ranging consequences, only some of which are me and my sisters and my sister’s four children. And you know, thank God they did. Thank fucking God in Heaven, driving a long, shimmering silver-white stretch limo with a moon roof and plasma TVs and a hot tub in back full of fat, frolicking, naked little cherubs that my foolish parents fucked up so badly, wed the exact wrong person in error, and then compounded that mistake by making me. I am finally grateful to be here.
We drive out of Sutter Creek, past a strip mall and several big box stores, past homes that get smaller and further apart, to a tiny airfield with a miniature runway. There is a long open shed there with open stalls, like a flea market or a firing range and a turquoise porta-potty. We park and my Dad gets out and greets the other old guys there: Leon, in a round, wide-brimmed straw hat, Ron, in a baseball hat and a silver ponytail, a couple of others.
“Murray,” Ron calls out my Dad’s name as he walks over, “you know lots of stuff…”
My Dad and I both laugh, recognizing a set-up if there ever was one. Ron immediately starts quizzing my Dad on the minutia of some remote-controlled model airplane quandary.
My Dad knows lots of stuff, lots and lots of stuff. He’s one of the old breed. He doesn’t just know stuff, he can fix stuff and he can build stuff. He can pound a nail all the way in with one stroke of the hammer, he can hang a door in your house just so—it’ll swing shut on it’s own if that’s what you want, or it’ll swing open on it’s own if that’s what you want or it’ll just stay put if that’s what you want. My Dad is an electrical engineer, he’s a nuclear physicist, he’s a fucking for-real rocket scientist, for God’s sake, the program was actually called Star Wars, yes, like the movie, and they sent shit up into outer space and then blew it up with motherfucking laser beams. My Dad builds super-conductors and semi-conductors and particle accelerators and duo pigatron ion sources. What a pigatron is, I don’t know, but my Dad does.
My Dad is deeply cool. He knows lots of stuff. Just like the computer he introduced me to as a small kid, he can answer almost any question. And just like that computer, my Dad does not know how he works. So be it. He’s more good than bad. He knows lots of stuff. Not everything, but then nobody gets to know all the stuff.
Leon launches and then pilots a remote controlled glider, making big lazy loops in the sky with it before landing it roughly on the tarmac to skid on its belly and then bump in the grass. I sit in the sun and drink my coffee as Ron takes his turn, piloting a miniature electric styrofoam biplane buzzing like a hornet in the sky.
Behind me, my father has assembled an egregiously large model airplane– at least five feet long, gleaming teal and red and silver. No way can that thing actually fly. And if it can, well, no way it can do much. It’s just so big and unwieldy, like a tuna with wings. I look at my Dad: what is he thinking? He’s wearing the gray hoody that he wears all the time now, a habit I think he picked up after borrowing one of my hoodies. Still, for some reason I think of it as his old man sweatshirt. Sometimes now, he wears clothes that I’ve outgrown. Jesus, we have come a long way. Does that mean we’re nearing the end?
Now he’s wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat. And he’s strapped on one kneepad– really Dad? Only one? I try to stanch the feeling but it’s too quick for me: I feel pity for him. It’s a loathsome thing, to feel pity for your parents. This will end in his defeat, in our defeat.
He gently lifts his monstrosity to the ground, secures its tail, then starts the prop. It’s loud as hell, like a two stroke street-bike, a little frightening. The silver fiberglass propeller whirls and I wonder what it would do to my legs if I walked into it. Then he frees its tail and negotiates it carefully with the remote control along a little concrete strip to the runway.
“Murray, taking off here, left to right” he calls out, but he doesn’t need to. It’s impossible not to watch the winged chainsaw in front of us. Then he guns the throttle.
The plane hurtles along the runway for a second, gaining speed, then unexpectedly flings itself in the air and rockets straight up. Up, up, up and it rolls over, once, twice, three times, then climbs further into the sky, four hundred feet, five hundred feet, then slowing and slowing till it stops dead in a stall. Fuck. Dad.
The plane falls neatly to its left, hurtles groundward, then noses up and buzzes towards the far end of the runway. A gorgeous, sexy swooping turn then back over the tarmac, rolling, climbing, falling, Jesus, flying upside down. I smile, gasp, laugh and keep laughing, amazement bubbling out of me uncontrollably.
Only once do I glance over at my father. He is gone. Utterly still, his face turned to the sky, motionless save for the small twitching movements of his hands on the controls as if he were immersed in a particularly involving dream. I turn away. My Dad’s not there. The shell next to me with its chromium knee, the missing prostate, the divots out of the red, veiny nose where the skin cancer has been removed, the improperly mended clavicle, the gray hair, the age spots: it’s already empty.
This isn’t some kitschy old man’s hobby. This is astral projection. This is fucking magic, dude. My father is up there in the untroubled blue, gleaming in the sunlight, banking, accelerating, pitching, stalling, arcing, then roaring back to life, blazing across the sky.
My father never terrified me, never oppressed me, never brutalized me, never tortured me, never degraded me. All the shit he endured—ostracism, teasing, alienation, his mother picking BBs out of his ass with a butcher knife, for God’s sake—it stopped with him. He took it and he absorbed it and he never made us feel it. He is a relic from the age of corporal punishment and, as a kid, he saw a lot of shit. A friend’s father broke a 2×4 over his back. At school, you were disciplined by having your knuckles rapped. Not with a ruler, with a yardstick, and the teacher buried that thing deep in the sensitive flesh of the fingers, breaking the skin on each one. “Getting your ass kicked” didn’t mean losing your soccer game. If you showed up late for dinner, your father told you to turn around and touch your toes and then he kicked you in the ass as hard as he could, lifting you off your feet, sending you sprawling. None of that came down to us kids. My father never hit me. He never lifted a hand as if he were going to hit me. He never even verbally threatened to hit me. Not once.
The way I understand it, parents have two responsibilities. They have to care for you until you reach reproductive age—you know, propagation of the species and all that. My father did that. And parents have to ensure that their kids come out a little less fucked up than they did. Not a lot, just a little. My father did that. At least, I think he did that. He tried, anyway. He made mistakes but he loved us, in his way and I’ve spent most of my life vilifying him.
Dad executes a perfect landing, his plane hitting the tarmac squarely, braking neatly, looping slightly right for a sharp left turn to pilot it back to us for refueling. I’m careful to stand behind a metal gate but that’s for my Dad’s benefit, not mine. If I stood directly in the plane’s path, my father is skilled enough to pilot it neatly around me. And if he wanted me to stand in the middle of the tarmac so he could fly it right into me at full speed, well, I would let him.
He shuts down the motor and looks at me, waiting for my reaction.
“Dad! That was fucking awesome! I had no idea. Those aerials, man…”
“Funny enough, the hardest thing is flying straight and level and just, you know, not making any mistakes.”
“No shit, Dad,” I say and he smiles, “no shit.”