New fiction about living with the man who raised you, long after he's gone
I took my dead father to see the Boston Red Sox play a major league baseball game.
I don’t mean that I took my father’s cremains, as they’re known in the parlance of modern undertaking. His cremains are gone. We dumped those in the lake where we always went for vacation when I was a kid. He really liked it out there, and my mother thought he might still, even though he’s no longer a person but rather a few pounds of ash that have the appearance and feel of fresh cat litter.
Well, actually, he was a few pounds of ash. I don’t know what he is now, since we dumped him in the lake. He probably no longer looks and feels like cat litter. I’d imagine that, in keeping with the spirit of scattering someone’s cremains in a body of water, he melded somehow with the lake, broke down further into the constituent parts that, combined, made him corporeal in the first place. Maybe by now he’s been transformed into a bit of aquatic flora, or else gobbled up into the creepy appendage-like mandibles of a crayfish that was, in turn, eaten by one of the chain pickerel my father and I used to catch when I was a kid, and so on.
My father is now part of the lake. Or parts of the lake.
I noticed, when I took my turn scattering my father in the lake, that in addition to looking and feeling like cat litter, he was full of little shards of what must have been bone. They bit into my palm as I gripped a handful of him. This hurt more than you would expect, though it did not draw blood.
Anyway, so the point is that I did not actually bring my dead father’s ashes to Fenway Park with me. I may have chosen to do so had they been available. But after more than three years, my mother finally had enough grief behind her that she was able, maybe even a little eager, to move my father from the nightstand next to where she slept and put him in the lake instead. Thus, his cremains were not available.
Nevertheless, after more than three years, the old man was still following me around everywhere I went. He rarely left me alone, which was weird because when he was alive, he left me alone quite often. I needed to do something about that, though at first I had no idea what.
The night before I decided to take my dead father to see the Red Sox, my girlfriend, who waited with ebbing patience to be my wife, told me that I “need(ed) help.”
I didn’t know what she meant, exactly, and she declined to elaborate. She was probably right — who among us doesn’t need help? — but I wasn’t in a generous enough state of mind to tell her so. We were fighting about various and sundry, as couples do. We were fighting about who’d said what to whom. We were fighting about the definitions of love and sex, where they were distinct from one another and where they met. We were fighting over the future as we saw it, respectively. We were creating, from the same raw material, our own discrete realities, then wielding those realities like prison shanks.
I realized afterward that we were probably also fighting about my dead father, though neither one of us actually mentioned him. I realized that when she said I “need(ed) help,” that may have been in part a reference to my dead father, and how he followed me around everywhere I went.
I am a writer, and I have written an awful lot about my father. Two of my books — one that was published a few years ago, and one that just came out — feature, as major plotlines, versions of his illness and death.
To give you an idea, once I came across an online discussion among readers in which someone referred to my “daddy issues.”
But even before then, I was aware that I probably thought and wrote too much about my father’s illness and death. Sometimes I would be gentle with myself about this. I would think something like, “Well, it was the defining event of your adulthood thus far, so naturally you’re going to be preoccupied with it.” Other times I would be less gentle with myself, and with those around me. One time in particular, while out drinking with friends, I made a show of compensatory bluster that I’m still embarrassed about. One of my friends was telling me how I should handle a situation in my life, and I said to him, meaning to be funny, “Who are you, my dad? No, you’re not my dad. You know why? Because he’s dead.”
And most everyone at the table gasped and smiled uncomfortable I’m-not-sure-at-all-how-I’m-supposed-to-react-to-that smiles as the words settled around us. I felt bad for making everyone uncomfortable. I felt bad, also, for seeming so blasé about my dead father. And I felt bad, further, for not making much sense. What I mean when I say that is that my father being dead wasn’t the reason my friend was not my father. My friend wasn’t my father simply because he wasn’t my father. The fact of my father being dead had nothing to do with it.
After my father died, the VA gave my mother a bunch of money because my father died of what they called a presumptive illness — meaning that the VA presumed he’d developed the disease as a direct result of the time he’d spent inhaling Agent Orange in Vietnam.
I thought, at times, that maybe the VA was being too presumptuous when it cut that check to my mother because, in addition to the time he’d spent breathing Agent Orange, my father also smoked for 30-odd years. Besides that, he’d been a firefighter and had waded into burning buildings without a respirator innumerable times. Plus, men in our family often died young, usually of cancer, without any help from anyone.
Phillip Morris wasn’t clamoring to write my mother a fat check.
The municipality for which my father had worked wasn’t clamoring to write my mother a fat check. I guess that, given everything, I thought the VA was being a bit hard on itself.
Still, I was glad my mother had the money. She needed it, with my father gone.
So anyway, even after he was dead, my father was always there. And our relationship was much like it had always been, which is to say we didn’t talk much. After more than three years of this, after taking his ashes and throwing them in the lake and watching them drift under the boat in eerie blue phosphorescent clouds, I decided that if he was going to keep hanging around, I should do something to make it a little easier to take.
When he was alive, we were always most comfortable around each other if we had something to pay attention to that would distract us from the silence. It occurred to me that maybe things were no different in this regard just because he happened to be dead.
So that’s when I decided to bring him to a baseball game.
It was awkward. First of all, he was very sick, as he’d been before he died, and so he couldn’t move around very well. Just getting into Fenway Park was an ordeal. I handed the attendant our tickets, and while he scanned them I tried to help my father, who was using one of those aluminum walkers, through the turnstile. I noticed the attendant staring, and I assumed he must be mesmerized by the sight of my father, who was only 57 but looked 90. There was a huge tumor under my father’s jaw that jutted and sagged, pulling at the skin of his neck. It was a sight. People didn’t want to stare at it, but they couldn’t help themselves.
“We’ll be just a minute,” I said to the attendant, lifting my father’s walker over the turnstile and holding his upper arm as he minced through. “Sorry about the holdup. He’s not well, as you can see.”
The attendant continued to stare, wagging the ticket stubs impatiently. “Come on, funny guy,” he said. “I’m not in the mood. There’s people waiting.”
For the occasion, I’d purchased seats in the infield roof along the first base line, the same section and row where we’d sat at my first Sox game when I was six or so. Back then, in the early 80s, it would have been impossible for my father to get to the roof in the shape he was in now, as he’d have had to climb four long flights of stairs. Now, though, times being what they are, there’s elevator access for the handicapped and infirm.
“Do you remember these seats?” I asked him as we settled in. “This is where we sat at the first game you brought me to.”
My dead father looked down at the field. His mustache twitched slightly.
“I think that was the same trip when we went to Riverside amusement park and rode the Black Widow roller coaster. I wanted to go again, but you didn’t. Either you were sick or you were scared. I realized that, even back then.”
My dead father, maybe a bit embarrassed at being afraid of a roller coaster, no matter how long ago, said nothing. He sat staring at the field, where the Tampa Bay Rays were taking batting practice. His walker was folded flat, resting against the seat back in front of him. It was still early and so most of the seats around us were empty.
“Riverside is gone, by the way,” I told him. “Now it’s a Six Flags, I think.”
Silence from him.
“I’m going to hit the concessions stand,” I said. “Do you want anything?”
He didn’t reply. I assumed that, being dead, he had little appetite.
Nevertheless, I brought him a small paper tray of nachos, along with a Coke, in case he changed his mind. He accepted these silently.
I’d waited in line for nearly 20 minutes, and by the time I got back the seats in our section had begun to fill up. A heavy woman with bottle-blonde hair was seated on the opposite side of my father.
“Hey,” she said to me, leaning across my father. “You gonna wanna play the cup game?”
“The cup game?”
“You don’t know it?”
“Everyone puts in a dollar. Each time someone comes to bat, the cup changes hands. If the batter gets a single, you take a buck out and pass it on. A double, two bucks. A triple, three. If he hits a home run you take the whole thing and everyone antes again. But if he makes an out, you put another dollar in and pass it on. Sound good?”
“He might want to play, too.” I gestured toward my father.
“My father. He’s sitting in that seat between us.”
“Oh. Well you can put a dollar in for him, if you want, hold his place until he gets back.”
“He hasn’t gone anywhere,” I said. “He’s right there. He’s dead, though, so maybe you can’t see him. I’m pretty sure no one can see him but me.”
The woman looked at me. She put a hand on my arm. “Are you OK?” she asked.
“Yes,” I told her. “At least, I think I am. But he’s been dead almost four years, and he follows me around everywhere I go. It gets uncomfortable. It was always uncomfortable for both of us, being around each other, back when he was alive. We never had anything to talk about. We’d do things like go to baseball games together just so we wouldn’t have to talk.”
The woman considered me for a moment. “So it’s his ghost?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I don’t believe in ghosts. I’m pretty sure the whole thing is just in my head. But it’s become clear that even if it’s just in my head, it’s no less real for that.”
“It’s a ghost,” the woman told me. “Trust me. I’ve seen ghosts my whole life.”
I waved a hand. “It hardly matters,” I said. “Ghost, cerebral projection. Either way, he’s there. Those are his nachos. That is his soft drink. He is present.”
“Poor thing,” the woman said. She may have meant me. She may have meant my father. I couldn’t tell. She looked at the cup in her hand, then held it out to me. “Well, two dollars then. One for you, one for him.”
So we played the cup game, my dead father and I.
As the Rays and then the Sox went 3-up, 3-down in the first inning, as I drank one beer and then the next in quick succession. And as my head started to lift slightly from my shoulders with that warm, familiar, helium-balloon-on-a-string sensation that I drink endlessly in pursuit of, I felt compelled to try and talk with the guy.
“So it’s possible,” I said, keeping my eyes trained on the diamond, where the grounds crew were busy raking the infield dirt, “that I misremember the Riverside amusement park thing. Maybe I was the one who was scared. Maybe you were just as solid and unflappable as always. Maybe, you know, my brain couldn’t handle yet another example of how I was a pussy by comparison, and so it made up a story in which you were the pussy.”
My dead father said nothing.
“I’ve got a really terrible memory,” I said. “I don’t think I ever had a chance to tell you that. But it’s true — terrible memory. Sometimes I wonder if I became a writer out of an impulse to fill in the gaps.”
More silence from my father.
“I’m just trying to let you know,” I continued, “that maybe I got it wrong. That in fact it’s likely I was the one who was scared. I wanted to let you know that, in case the reason you’re so quiet is because you’re offended at the suggestion that there was ever a time when you were scared of anything, let alone a stupid roller coaster.”
“Who is he talking to?” someone behind me wondered out loud.
“You’re up,” the heavyset woman with the bottle-blonde hair said to me.
I took the cup full of dollar bills. The Rays’ Delmon Young was at the plate, facing Tim Wakefield. Young let two knuckleballs flutter by for strikes, then took a mighty, frustrated hack at the third, missing it by about a foot. I put a dollar in and placed the cup in my father’s cupholder.
Brendan Harris, the Rays’ light-hitting second baseman, had watched what happened to Young and didn’t intend to wait around and see it happen to him. He swung out of his shoes at the first pitch, a hanging knuckler, and deposited it in the seats on the Green Monster.
The 35,000 assembled exhaled their disappointment. My father, however, seemed unmoved by either the Red Sox’s bad fortune or his own good fortune. By this point, I admit, I was feeling the first twinges of annoyance with his impassiveness and growing less inclined to make allowances for it due to the fact of his being dead. He had his hands full with the nachos and drink, so despite my irritation, I removed his winnings from the cup for him.
“Hey,” said that same voice behind me. “He just had the cup. Why does he get the money?”
“Shut your face,” the woman on the other side of my father said. “Everyone ante.”
A bit more grumbling from the row immediately behind us, but everyone ponied up in time for Wakefield to yield two singles, a double and another single without registering an out. The cup was pretty light by the time it made its way back to me, and I added a buck after Carl Crawford grounded into a force play at third. Another groundout followed to end the top of the second, and I put a dollar in from my father’s winnings. The Rays were up, suddenly, 4-nil, and the hometown crowd, hair-trigger restless as always, grumbled as Wakefield shuffled to the dugout, head down, his face obscured under the bill of his cap.
“Hell of an inning,” I said to my father, trying, without much hope, to connect with him through commiseration. “Patented Wakefield flameout.”
But my father didn’t seem to care. When he was still alive he might gripe mildly about the Sox, snorting at the television or referring to Boston’s third baseman as “Useless” Youkilis, but in death his indifference had apparently become complete.
“You talking to me,” the heavy woman asked, “or to him?”
“Him,” I said.
“He talking back?”
“No,” I said. “But that’s, you know, protocol.”
“Keep trying,” she said. “Be patient. I’m going to grab a beer. You want another one?”
She nodded, sidled out of the row, disappeared up the ramp.
My father and I sat silently side by side. The grounds crew raked the mound, the base paths. The PA blared an organ version of “Hungry Like the Wolf.” Wally the Green Monster danced on the roof of the home dugout, rotating his plush, bulbous midsection hula-hoop style.
Keep trying, the woman who believed in ghosts and whose name I still didn’t know had told me. So, OK.
“You know something I’ve noticed, occasionally, since you died?” I asked my father.
He seemed to appreciate that this was a rhetorical question, and did not venture a guess.
“When I look at photographs of you,” I continued, “they’re almost never photographs of you. I mean, you’re in them, and often it seems like the person taking the picture meant for you to be the primary subject. But you end up looking sort of ancillary. You’re always at the border, eclipsed by something else — a picnic table, a parked car. I don’t think you intended to be ancillary — you’re not trying to hide — but it’s as though you had this reflex. Like you couldn’t help but be marginalized. Like you were on the verge of disappearing all the time. And then you finally disappeared for real, and now I can’t get rid of you.”
The heavy woman with the bottle blonde hair returned, wielding two cups overflowing with froth. “Here you go,” she said, handing me one of the beers. “You making any progress with your dad?”
“Like, is he talking to you?”
I shook my head. “I’m starting to think this was a mistake. Bringing him here.”
The heavy woman sipped her beer. “Please,” she said. “Don’t act like you had a choice.”
We were quiet while Kevin Youkilis struck out looking on three pitches. In between batters, the PA announcer encouraged us to sign up for next year’s Red Sox fantasy camp in beautiful Fort Myers, Florida.
“It’s different now, though,” the woman said, shoving a dollar into the cup and passing it behind her. “You don’t realize it yet, but it’s different. He wants to talk now. Why else would he hang around? You just have to keep at it.”
I glanced back and forth at the people seated nearby, then leaned in toward the woman. “Can I tell you something?” I asked.
“Sometimes I don’t really care much that he’s dead. Most days I wake up and don’t think about him at all. Some days I wake up and think about him, and it has no more effect on me than a weather report. Which is why it makes no sense that he follows me everywhere I go.”
“Honey, you’re not listening to me,” the woman said. “He isn’t following you around for your sake. He isn’t following you around because you’re hurting or because you need something. Honey, pay attention, will you?”
“So what is it that you want?” I asked my dead father, there in the seats at Fenway Park.
“That’s it,” said the heavy woman with the bottle-blonde hair. “That’s the question you should be asking.”
It was the top of the 7th. I was drunk on a combination of Bud Light and provincial sports loyalty, that intoxicating accident of birthplace. The Sox were still losing 4-0. They’d managed only two hits. The crowd had cycled from cranky to indifferent to sleepy, and now sat dozing in the afternoon sun, resigned to defeat.
“This one is not a rhetorical question,” I told my father when he didn’t answer. “But maybe I should rephrase. Forget about what you want. What is it that you need?”
“Go on,” the woman said. “That’s it.”
“I have to be honest,” I said. “Right now I don’t really care what you need, despite the fact that I’m asking,” I told my father. “You offered me very little while you were alive, so why should I care what you need now?”
“Whoa. Easy,” said the woman.
“I’m not mad about it,” I told my father. And I didn’t feel angry, though I was distantly aware that my voice had gone up a few decibels and people were starting to stare. “Things certainly could have been much worse. You worked hard and sacrificed a lot and didn’t beat us up. You just didn’t know how to be present. A lot of men are like that. So what? I figured, with you dead, I’d let bygones be bygones. But now here you are. So tell me: What do you want? What do you need?”
Two security personnel showed up. They wore those squiggly pig-tail ear pieces and red polo shirts with the Superman “S” silk-screened on them, except in this case the “S” meant “Security,” not “Superman.” They asked me what was going on, what the problem was.
“I’ve been drinking,” I told them.
“Do you need a doctor?” one of them asked.
“Why would I need a doctor?” I said.
“We were just wondering. We’ve had reports that you’re not well. We want to make sure you’re taken care of. Do you need a doctor?”
“I don’t need a doctor,” I said. “I’m not hurt. I’ve just been drinking.”
“Then you have to leave,” they told me. “If you don’t need a doctor.”
The woman with the bottle-blonde hair and I took my dead father across the street to finish watching the game at Jillian’s. We sat in the second-floor billiards hall, gazing up at a pastiche of flat screens mounted on the wall behind the bar. Other than us and a couple of guys playing pool at a table on the far side of the room, the place was empty. Everyone but us was at the ballpark.
I was still yelling at my dead father, though I didn’t mean to be yelling. The bartender warned me to keep it down.
“Listen, I’m not pissed off at you,” I said to my father, as Jacoby Ellsbury grounded to shortstop for the first out of the 8th inning. “I put all that shit away years ago. Long before you died, in fact. You were who you were, was my attitude.”
My voice kept getting louder and louder, seemingly of its own accord. Soon my hands were also involved, waving wildly around. My father took no notice. He stared at the television. His mustache twitched again.
“Tell him,” said the woman whose name I did not know.
“You two,” the bartender said, pointing a finger. “Out of here.”
The woman with the bottle-blonde hair and I took my father up Landsdowne Street to finish watching the game at the Cask ‘n Flagon. It was louder there, packed wall-to-wall, and I was free to yell without fear of being tossed.
“You’ve gotten me thrown out of the game and now out of a bar,” I said to my dead father. I didn’t feel angry, but I was still yelling.
“Sox just scored two,” the heavy woman said, pointing at the television. I looked up in time to see Youkilis cross the plate on a double by J.D. Drew.
People clapped. “Come on, now,” they said. “Couple more,” they said.
“You know,” I told my father, “sometimes friends tell me it must be hard that you’re gone, that now I have no one to go to when I need advice, and I nod and say yeah, it’s tough, because I want them to believe you were a better father than you actually were. I want them to believe I lost something more than I did. But you and I know I didn’t lose much, right?”
My father said nothing.
“We can agree on that, I’m sure,” I said. “Like I told you, I’m not angry about it. That’s Pete’s thing. He’s the one who’s still pissed off. He feels like he was cheated out of a real father, even though you were there the whole time. That’s not how I feel at all.”
Pete was my older brother. He had a wife and three kids. Pete’s kids all loved him unreservedly. I had no idea what that was like, because I had no kids of my own.
To Pete’s kids, he had always been the perfect balance of father and friend. In that way he was very different from our dead father. In other ways — he worked a lot and was a good baseball player, for example — he was just like our father.
Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Boston’s catcher, came to the plate with Drew still on second. He took a changeup for a called strike and then swung late on a low slider, carving it off into the seats along the third base line. He found a crack in his bat and called for a new one from the dugout. With the tying run at the plate after a long, dull afternoon, people were excited now, both in the park and at the Cask ‘n Flagon. Behind Saltalamacchia, four boys beat the backstop in unison with the palms of their hands, demanding a hit.
“Sometimes I feel bad for writing about you so much,” I told my father. “For exploiting our relationship for profit. But then other times I don’t feel so bad. You’re dead. What do you care? And besides, despite everything I’ve written about you, I’ve still protected your most shameful secret. I’ve carried it around and felt it burn inside me and I still never wrote about it. I’ve kept that secret, old man. So far.”
By now Saltalamacchia had come back from 0-2 to run the count full. He fouled off junk pitch after junk pitch. People murmured in anticipation. They could feel that he was locked in, waiting for something he could drive. They could feel that the pitcher was scared. He’d thrown everything he had, twice over, and Saltalamacchia was still standing there waiting.
“Actually, you know what, I’ll make you a deal,” I told my father. “If you leave me alone, I won’t write about you any more. Your secret will stay a secret. How about that?”
Of course Saltalamacchia hit a home run and tied the game. The bartender, festive and careless, served me three more vodka tonics. Then the Sox fell behind in the top of the 12th on a bloop single to shallow center that scored Ben Zobrist. My dead father refused to leave, watching impassively as the Sox made three straight outs in the bottom of the inning and the game ended while I screamed in his ear.
After the Sox lost, as the disappointed crowd spilled into the streets outside the Cask ‘n Flagon, I told my dead father that I’d lied. That in fact I had already written about his worst, most shameful secret. That it would be revealed to anyone who cared to read my next book. That I was done covering for him. He sat and listened and did not look at me or offer a word in his own defense. His mustache twitched, and an artery in his neck thumped against the skin.
Later, after things calmed down and the crowds had thinned, the heavy woman and my father and I sat drinking at Boston Beer Works, across from the park.
“My mother followed me around for six years,” the woman said. “I guess maybe I should have told you that earlier.”
“How’d you get rid of her?”
“Hon,” she said. “He’s still sitting there, isn’t he?”
“Well, be nice, then.”
“He doesn’t care,” I told her. “Really. How’d you get her to go away?”
She looked at me. “Séance,” she said over the rim of her beer glass.
In a cab on the way to the Tremont Tearoom, where the heavy lady had called ahead to make an appointment, she cautioned me that at no point should I refer to the event as a séance.
“Laura thinks of herself as a medium,” she told me. “She calls these sessions ‘mediumships.’ She hates the word ‘séance.’ Also, try not to look so drunk.”
We got out of the cab at Boston Common and walked across the park toward Tremont. People lofted Frisbees and walked their dogs as the sun plunged into the Charles. Other people sat on benches underneath trees. Duck tour boats rumbled by spewing diesel smoke. A black man in a three-piece suit played saxophone for tips, and an intense young woman with spiked hair and skinny jeans photographed him from all kinds of angles.
I said to my father: “This is it. In half an hour or so, Laura’s going to get rid of you. So if you’ve got anything on your mind, you’d better say it now.”
Laura, my dead father, the heavy woman and I sat in a windowless room with red velvet drapes hanging from the walls.
“And so he’s with us here?” Laura asked.
“He’s always with me,” I told her. “I want him to go away.”
“Well, I can’t really offer that sort of service,” Laura said.
“You can’t?” I said. “What kind of séance is this, anyway?”
Laura let that one slide.
“I only act as a conduit between you,” she explained. “If he decides to go away on his own as a result of what happens here, that’s his choice, of course. But you need to understand that there’s a very good reason why he’s always with you. A reason he probably wants to communicate, but cannot.”
“What else is new,” I said to no one in particular.
“So that’s where I come in,” Laura said, giving me a strained smile.
“We’re seeing trees and ferns and smoke. A forest. A jungle, actually. There are vines and big green fronds and the ground is wet. When we pull our boot out of the mud, the print fills with water.” Laura opened her eyes. “Does that mean anything to you?”
“He was in Vietnam,” I said. “Two tours.”
“That’s it, for sure,” Laura said, closing her eyes again. “There’s all kinds of black smoke. The jungle is on fire, it looks like.”
“We’re by a river,” Laura said. “Down the bank there’s a person lying in the water. The water’s only a few inches deep. The person isn’t moving. He could be asleep, when we look at him, but he isn’t.”
“Did you ever ask your father if he killed anyone?” Laura asked me.
“Here’s your answer,” she said.
I’d been maybe eight years old. I was reading a book that belonged to my father called “Tim Page’s Nam.” Tim Page was a photographer, and the book was full of terrible images. It probably should have been kept out of my reach, at that age. The photos weren’t particularly bloody, but they were ominous, frightening — even a child could tell that in almost every shot, something horrifying had just happened, or was about to happen. I did some simple arithmetic: Judging by the photographs, Vietnam = a place where people had killed other people. Therefore, my father + Vietnam + the fact that he himself was not dead = he had killed people.
But this deduction wasn’t enough for me. I needed to hear it. So I went to him. He was listening to the Beatles, a set of big chunky 70s hi-fi headphones hugging his ears. He never saw it coming. It was just another day, 10 or more years after the last time he’d breathed Agent Orange. It was the last thing on his mind, I’m sure. I approached, and he took the headphones off, eyebrows raised somewhat impatiently. I asked him point-blank, innocent as a baby. It was the only time he ever hit me. I clambered to my feet and ran outside and shot hoops in the yard, tears streaming, my cheek turning purple. He left the house and didn’t come home for two days, and no one ever talked about it after that. I certainly never asked him again.
“When we move down the bank the dirt falls away and our feet go out from under us and we slide down to the bottom. Now we can see that the person lying on his back in the water is not a man, but a girl. She looks 16 or 17. There’s a cloud of blood in the water around her head. There’s a rifle on the bank near her feet. One of her feet is bare. The other one has a black sandal on it.”
One of the very few things my father told me about the war was that women were some of the fiercest soldiers the Viet Cong threw at them. He said this with great respect. I don’t remember how it came up. I was 28, 29 years old by then.
“There’s a small hole in the girl’s face. Just below her left eye. Before, when we’ve been in firefights, we thought we might have killed someone but never knew for sure. This time we know. She was standing there on the path, and we raised our rifle, and she raised hers half a beat later, and then she was gone, down the bank, into the water.”
After my father died, I went through his medical records. Several reams, probably; doctors love their paperwork as much as anyone. It took days. Mixed in with all the routine blood work and colonoscopy results and, later, the chest x-rays and chemotherapy orders, I found a report from a VA social worker who had examined my father for PTSD. There were all kinds of things I never knew about. He’d wake up in the middle of the night trying to strangle my mother. He’d have these dreams and wouldn’t talk to anyone, not even the guys at the fire station, for days. This is 30 years after the fact, understand. You wouldn’t have known it, to look at the guy. He was quiet, sure, but he never grabbed a gun and climbed a bell tower. He didn’t drink himself into oblivion. He worked a lot and watched the 6:30 news and enjoyed normal habits, like eating two pieces of buttered white bread, each folded in half, with his plate of spaghetti.
“Even though we can’t see it, we know the back of the girl’s head is gone, because the M193 round yaws when it hits a human being, and it makes big exit wounds,” Laura said. “We know also that Tony Conigliaro got hit in the face with a fastball a couple of weeks ago and was lucky it didn’t kill him. We know that Yaz could win the Triple Crown. We know the Sox are on top of the American League. We know this because the only thing we’ve cared about for the last five months are box scores in the Stars and Stripes and cassette tapes of game broadcasts from back home. We try to think about these things as we sit in the mud and look at the girl. Yaz could win the Triple Crown! The Sox could win the pennant! But the back of the girl’s head is gone. We know that, even though we can’t see it. And it’s all we can think about.”
Laura’s acting as the mediator between me and my father, just like my mother did for all those years.
As anyone who knows anything can tell you, Yaz did end up winning the Triple Crown, and the Red Sox did go on to win the pennant. By that time, according to Laura, my father didn’t give much of a shit one way or the other. Sitting there on the riverbank, he’d been transformed into the man who, years later, would only gripe mildly when the Sox weren’t doing well. I’d stand and curse and pace the room, and he’d wave one hand at the television, then turn off the sound and pick up a copy of Firehouse Magazine, as if baseball were cricket, as if Tony C. hadn’t nearly given his life for the game.
After we left the Tremont Tearoom, I said goodbye to the heavy woman with the bottle-blonde hair. She asked if my father was gone now, and I told her no, and then I wished her well. I took a cab back to Fenway and packed my father into the car and drove three hours north, sobering up as I went. My girlfriend, who wanted to be my wife, waited there at home. The house was dark, and I let myself in. My girlfriend had gone to bed. I went upstairs and turned on the light and waited for her to stop blinking rapidly. Then I suggested marriage. I’d stopped at a grocery store in New Hampshire and gotten a Ring Pop from one of those vending machines, and I presented it to her with the proposal. I said silly things that seemed somehow very serious, like I wanted to fill her up with my seed. I told her that I wanted a son. She was largely unmoved, and who could blame her. The last time we’d seen each other, we’d been yelling, and now I smelled like stale beer. Still, I was hopeful we could move toward the things I proposed. We’d worked our way back from worse.
I still take my father to baseball games, and everywhere else I go. But I don’t buy him a ticket anymore. I’ve learned not to say anything to him, or to tell anyone else that he’s there. It’s only occasionally, usually late at night and always when I’m alone, that I still sometimes try to talk with him, and he still meets my efforts with silence.
And now I really am finished, once and for all, with writing about my dead father.
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