The Good Father
My dad’s name is Philly Penwaydon and, meaning to be funny, he’s started addressing me, his estranged and only son, as Sam Lee P., like I’m part Korean or something. I’m not. I’m black Irish on my mom’s side, clear blue eyes and hair the color of onyx. On my dad’s, American mutt, and, from what I’ve been able to piece together, mostly Pinscher and Rottweiler, minus the choke chain and rabies shots.
My mom and I live in Grand Rapids, where she teaches sign language at the school for the deaf. Which she is not, nor am I, though whenever she wants me to listen extra close to what she’s saying, she’ll talk in that patient, silent-slow dance of her fingers and hands. I understand some of what she says, but even those parts that I miss—I know they’re no less forgiving about my dad.
He’s been out of prison for a full year following his parole, long enough without incident to warrant this visit, my first, even against my mom’s repeated objections and appeals. “Okay, enough. I’m worn out, Sam Lee,” she eventually said, and legal adult or not, deferred the final decision to me. It took all of about two seconds because no matter how you argue it, you can’t train or command a kid like me away from his own flesh and blood.
I’m not exactly in partnership with him, not yet, though this morning he said, “Good job,” as I tramped down the grass and weeds on the side of the highway, a two-lane with no center strip and tons of rubber. That’s so people driving by can read the telephone number on the Affordable Stump Grinding signs we staked every quarter mile all the way south to Mesick and back. Some within a few yards of those stark white death crosses. There are way more than seems normal, like maybe it’s where the bored-crazy teenagers drag race or play chicken. The crosses are kind of eerie, all decorated with garlands and plastic wreathes and rosaries. And one with bright yellow graduation tassels that fluttered in the breeze.
The way my dad first described it over the telephone, I imagined the stump grinder as some Godzilla-like monstrosity he’d junked together. Wheels and gears and saw-blade jawbones that could pulverize, in a matter of minutes, the ancient root balls of oaks, and ironwood, and black walnut. Or even the petrified deadfall in the shallow coves of Lake Tonawanda, where we used to walleye fish before my mom and me moved away when I was ten, that same year my dad began serving his sentence at Camp Pugsley. We never visited him, not once during all that time, and to my surprise and disappointment he has not violated the restraining order against him by hightailing it back to us. My mom swears that if he ever tries, she’ll press charges to the full extent of the law. And, as he admitted to me last night, it’s the price that men who’ve grimed-up their lives like this pay in grief and shame for their freedom.
He’s a torch welder by trade but out of work since last May when the junkyard went belly-up. It’s where all the ghost cars used to get towed, he explained, and that one time he salvaged from the wreckage a wedding band embedded in steel, a tiny round vein of gold right there in the mangled manifold. “And Jesus H. All Merciful Christ,” he said. “No way on this earth could I hazard the make or model. Some damn import or other, a Peugeot or Mercedes—I don’t know.” Not that he could stay alive on strikes such as these and, to emphasize that point, he tap-tapped his temple with the tip of his index finger, as if to make clear that, Here’s how you survive, Sam Lee P. Up here’s your future pure and simple.
According to my mom he’s smart all right, and that’s what’s got her worried. The way his mind always works a good idea bad, and I figure what we’re up to might constitute a prime example. Him drinking Old Milwaukee, I mean, and waiting around for the phone to ring even though a single drop of alcohol violates his parole, as my mom never ceases to remind me. But go ahead, try telling him that it’s illegal to toast our time together after so long apart, and see how that results in anything worthwhile.
A working vacation’s what he calls it, and management means fringes, “And here’s to us,” he says, “the owners and inventors,” and he takes another swig, the water tower the only blue patch in the bruised sky, and some not-so-far-off lightening and rumble. We’re outside, facing each other from opposite ends of the johnboat, the Coleman cooler between us. Like we’ve just pushed away from shore in a slow drift out towards the drop-off, our lines trailing, the blood-fat black leeches squirming on our hooks, and a net and tape measure on the seat beside me.
That’s what I’ve wished for in his absence and I still do—to be out on the water like we used to. “Soon enough,” he says, as if now that I’m here all we need to do is put our heads together and anything’s possible.
The boat is up on cinderblocks in this partially fenced-in backyard, and the property backed up almost all the way to the old tri-county landfill, seventy-some odd acres worth my dad says. The property is lush and contoured and shiny green as a treeless rain forest against the foreground doldrums.
The construction trailer he’s renting is only temporary, summer digs as spare as a platform tent. Like camping out, he says, except for the flush toilet and cold-water tap. A hot-plate for a kitchen and everything beer-basted and pan fried, and the only door propped open with a brick, so we’re not entirely roughing it.
No shrubs or flower boxes, no birdhouses either, like back home, and there’s one of those corkscrew metal stakes in the ground, and a chain attached as if he’s got in mind to buy me a goat or a 4-H heifer for all those consecutive birthdays that he’s missed. But I’m well beyond all that. After all, I’m in tenth grade, come September, six inches taller now, and my dad finally off the leash with the law. Changes such as these—they don’t occur overnight, and, if logic holds, who in God’s name would care enough anymore to check up on the two of us so shut off from all worlds other than our own? My mom, I suppose, but against those odds I’d wager our entire bankroll once word spreads and the business catches hold.
He says, “You want to guess on our first score’s purchase?” but before I can answer he adds, “A set of oars, and some caulk to seal the bottom leaks. A couple new rods and backlash-free Bait-Master reels wouldn’t hurt the cause either, would they? And then just live the good life as good as it gets and anchor the past back there behind us, where it belongs.”
I hope we can, but he’s already been fishing around for information about what my mom’s been up to. She’s still pretty as ever, tall, slim-waist, thirty-seven and, as of a couple Decembers ago, officially single again.
Unlike my dad—whose hand I shook but who I barely recognized when I first stepped off the Greyhound—she hasn’t aged at all. Really, cast back four years, before the trial and the guilty as charged, and there she is, bare-shouldered, and dangling her feet over the square-nosed stern of a boat not unlike this one in better days. Eyes closed, her legs long and thin, relive that afternoon, everyone wins out. I’ve got a snapshot to prove it's true. Not on me, of course, and how cruel anyway would that be to hold it up, like an image of her both here and not here in the brutal-sad and maximum extreme.
It’s mid-August and sweltering hot, and he’s wearing those hand-wraps he uses to pummel the heavy oxblood-colored bag suspended from the single-bay garage rafter, where he stores his acetylene tank and his mask and tools. Anger management’s what I figure, but all I know for sure is that whenever he digs a single left hook, that sweaty leather wheezes and it’s easy to imagine the sudden cave-in of a man’s ribs. And the practical matter thereafter and therefore forever, as my mom insists, of having had a felon in our family. “An ex-con, Sam Lee, and no matter what he says or promises, that trail never goes cold entirely.”
The way she carries on you’d think that he’d killed a man with his bare fists, but he didn’t. Nor, as she readily admits, has he, ever, raised one towards her or me, and so where’s the threat is the question that I want considered. Nowhere, as far as I can tell, and some judge ever gives me the third degree, I’ll testify under oath that one-on-one my dad and me, we make a pretty formidable team.
His crime? Breaking and entering. And the premeditated destruction of property, which he’d never condone unprovoked, but you deny someone like him with dreams and aspirations a small business loan, he might not just tuck his tail between his haunches and cower away. It made the national news. The bank president back from Florida, and his vintage, cherry-red 1956 T-Bird transformed into a BBQ mobile. The trunk and passenger-side door torched shut and, mounted on the hood, a backyard barrel grill, the cover raised and inside, the best revenge detail of all: a swollen-up shiny copper-plated hotdog with one end fluted like the tip of some giant’s penis. And a spray-painted sign along the front and rear panels that said, all in capital letters, BIG WEENIES ARE BETTER. My buddy, Bry Lyndel, still cracks up just thinking about it, but truth told, you witness your dad handcuffed and forcibly removed from the house, and your sense of humor laughs itself out awful fast.
His squint lines—they’re road maps to nowhere I ever want to end up is what he tells me. It’s as close as he’s come to describing his incarceration, the grooves deepening in his forehead whenever he lights up a Pall Mall. And his thumb’s much jerkier on the butane striker than I remember, like he might blow a fuse any second, and the smoke held so long in his lungs that almost nothing comes out on the exhales.
He’s inquired about school. All A’s all subjects, history my favorite. And I guess, if you leap ahead another year, a driver’s permit is in the works, but uh-uh, no girlfriend to slide right up tight to me on the slippery vinyl seat of my mom’s Ford Falcon. “It’ll happen,” he says. “Trust me.” Which I do though the only girl who’s ever even kissed me is Novella Delzel. On the neck, while we slow-danced in the basement of the Second Congregational church, a private personal detail you’d never confess to any adult, except possibly at gunpoint.
“How ‘bout your mom, she seeing someone?” he asks now. Casual, off-the-cuff sounding, but I don’t take the bait straight away, and I don’t lie either. Instead, I describe how she sometimes silently sings herself to sleep on the couch, her lips and fingertips twitching some made up tune she’ll later teach to those school kids.
He nods, like okay, fair enough, and yeah, there have been men, but not a long list, and only one weekend live-in, and in the end that turned out to be short term anyhow. A guy I liked—a Vietnam vet with a prosthetic arm, but mention him and that hateful war recently ended, and my dad will go gale-force. That’s what my mom warned, but other than railing on the heavy bag, I haven’t witnessed any such evidence, and his sense of humor up to this point refutes that charge. “Just remember,” she said, “stay vague when it comes to me, Sam Lee. Do not push that button,” and then in sign, her fist hitting the breakfast table like a soundless gavel, “Please, promise me that. For everyone’s sake.”
Luckily, the sky keeps darkening, and I point toward the storm-blow no longer a county or two distant, the thunderclaps smack dab above us. “Whoa, listen to that,” I say, the treetops in full bend and weave, and I make a joke about how this just might turn out to be the windfall we’re after. Even the boat rocks a little, and when my dad breaks loose with laughter in the sudden downpour, it’s not so unlike old times. Minus my mom, that is, and the gray in his hair, and no lifejackets, and him standing up, which he always instructed me never to do, not even if the rod throbbed and bent double.
I hold onto both sides for balance as he steps down, the rain smacking the ground muddy all around us, like the oval-mouthed frenzy of thousand and thousands of feeding fish.
There’s a fifty-gallon drum that’s attached to the backside of the roof, plus a pipe and shower-head. No pressure to speak of, but the rainwater’s warm, and so I’m still in the makeshift stall, staring up at the full moon as bright as I’ve ever seen it, and shooting stars galore. My dad—he’s the one who taught me their names, washed kind of murky lately, but Orion’s easy to identify on a night like this. And I’m pretty certain that’s the Quail’s Head, and there’s the Barking Dog, which you can’t ever hear or summon, but the landfill’s been growling like my dad said it does late in the summer, following heavy weather like yesterday and today. Rain turned hail, and high humidity, and temperatures right out of Hades. He claims if you press your ear to the ground after midnight, you’ll hear the heartbeats of mules, the wings of enormous birds thrusting upward, the discarded world all ooze and steam and birthing creatures you couldn’t possibly conceive. “Not in this life,” he says. “Not even if you pile your craziest ever dreams one right on top of the other.”
For months after he was taken away, I’d wake screaming, the sheets tangled and soaked with sweat, and my bedroom detached and floating sideways away from the house, above the backyards of neighbors we never had. But since I arrived I’ve been sleeping okay on the floor mattress, my dad’s low snores a comfort. It’s in large part how we’re getting reacquainted: by certain familiar sounds rising and dying, the two of us side by side under the same roof again.
Still, it would definitely help buoy our moods if someone would call to hire us short notice. Or if we were at least having more fun while we waited throughout the mornings, and afternoons, and deeper into each evening. There’s a portable black and white TV but it’s all scratch and static on the only channel he says sometimes comes in if you fiddle the rabbit ears just so. And no cards. No Monopoly or Clue, and naturally the nearest tenpin alley’s two towns distant.
Don’t get me wrong—I do like being here, how fast it cools down after sunset. But you can only watch the night shadows blur and brighten for so long as your eyes adjust and readjust to how nothing’s like what it seemed in the daylight. That’s why we’re heading up to the landfill real soon. To break the monotony, the wear and tear on our nerves, being locked up for the most part. You’d think it’d be nonstop conversation with all this catching up to do, but these long and awkward silent stretches, they make me consider packing up and stealing away back home before the week’s even completed.
My take is that for the sake of a good story, my dad exaggerated by a whole lot when he said, “You go cheap like they did on the vents, Sam Lee P., and it’s the Big Bang all over again.” I shrugged and he said, “No, I’m dead serious. Listen, it’s the simple physics of matter decomposing. All that methane gas trapped and compacted and nowhere to go, and I’m thinking that you and me, we’re the ones most at risk here, so what do you say we drive up there and lance that boil?”
A tricked-up impossible plot or not, it for sure beats hanging around, and listening to him talk in tongues. Like how someday eons removed the entire landfill might slide all the way south to Grand Rapids, where some filthy-rich doctor type or developer will buy it up and build a golf course or a hilltop mansion. Skylights and high ceilings and hallways that echo like train whistles.
I dry off with my same towel and get dressed, and I guess that my dad’s finally done leafing through the pages of that same Field & Stream. For the time being anyhow. Unless he’s calling me inside to point out for the umpteenth time an outboard motor he’d like to buy.
I don’t mean to sound crass, or to imply that his growing checklist’s a total fabrication. But piss in one hand and wish in the other and see which one fills first. That’s what he used to say to me when he’d get frustrated, my mom asking, “Returnable bottle and can rescue? To benefit exactly who or what, Philly?” Which wasn’t really a question, and the tone not at all charitable when another weekend scrap drive added up to little more than pocket change. Nonetheless, it tops what we’ve made thus far, and the odds appear better that a small horsepower Mercury or Evinrude will erupt from some sunken river, the chrome propeller tearing through flame and moonlight at full bore right to this flimsy, half-corroded tin door.
“You all set?” he says, and next thing he’s up and outside and rotating a flange on the truck’s front-end assembly with a giant lock-wrench. Then off come the set chains, like he’s about to turn some secret danger loose on the world, the cab stripped bare except for the steering wheel and hydraulics, and when he climbs in and yanks back on one of the levers, the stump grinder wheezes slowly off the ground. Like an oversized brush-hog, or a minesweeper. Like something a long time dormant and, forced awake like this, angry and yawning and hungry for whatever gets in its way.
“Not bad for a rig left for dead,” he says. He means the tilt-bed wrecker, which part by rescued part he’s rebuilt, and now features a rear wench that he claims is powerful enough to dredge up a bank safe or sunken car from the bottom muck beneath Brown Bridge. All I care is that the engine starts, and when it fires alive first try, he says. “Stick with me, Sam Lee P.,” and he double-clutches, and within minutes the wrecker’s barge-like and banging uphill through wave after grassy-thick wave tipped silver under the halo-glow of the moon and stars.
There’s a flat spot on top and when he stops and kills the headlights I can see, in the afterimage of the dying filaments, blue mist rising all around us. But no foul air like at the rat dumps where we used to hunt, all those beady eyes liquid blind in the high beams, and my dad whispering, “That a boy. Okay, aim and squeeze.” Up here’s more like an overgrown fairway, treeless and quiet, and when I step down I can’t feel anything breathing or seething around underneath.
For sure not wings, or swollen up animal hearts, or anything trapped and still alive and thrashing to get loose. The bleached torsos of refrigerator doors, maybe, or the bones of old ladders, garbage bags bloated and flung like plastic lungs from open pickup beds. Stuff like that. Old sinks and busted brine barrels, and mangy carpeting yanked out of double-wides like the one where we used to live, all of us still together, and less than a half hour’s drive from here. But fire and gas balls? Fine, right, but then someone explain the logic of my dad lighting up yet another cigarette.
“Stand back,” he says. “Let’s see how this brute roots and gorges.”
There’s not a stump in sight, of course. And why, I haven’t a clue, but I flash on how grown-up lives turn out the way they do, my mom’s framed diploma on the wall, and her, deaf to any consideration of my dad’s remorse, or to him ever changing for the better. And the Big Bang, which we learned about in school last year, is where it all began, in absolute total darkness, before time itself exploded into this universe.
Dirt’s erupting everywhere like scattershot, the augers biting so hard that the whole wrecker’s shaking. And there’s a tremor underfoot now, and the exploding tails of twin comets crisscrossing light-years from where my dad’s hell-bent on trenching down to unearth some ghost or other. Some tiny dark heart that might pulse and glow in the grainy 3-D silhouette this night has offered up.
I cup my hands and yell, “Dad, that’s enough,” but whatever he’s just hit is lodged solid, metal screeching on metal so loud that I cover my ears and backpedal a few more feet. The sound is deafening, worse than the close-up wail of sirens.
Could be it’s just an illusion, the wavering shadows and such, but the truck’s front end appears to nosedive. He doesn’t let up and after another few minutes it tips farther forward. Beyond the windshield and all the way up to the doors, as if it’s being towed underground, crowns of sparks churned skyward and showering back down all around him.
“Dad, shut it off. Shut it off, please, and get out of there before something blows,” but my throat’s all stingers, swollen almost shut, and I’m screaming as if from those same nightmares my mom would wake me from, furious and cursing what my dad had done to himself and to us.
I close my eyes. It’s all I can think to do, terrified that if I watch I’ll witness him being swallowed into some bottomless cavern never to be seen or heard from again. Like magic, everything goes silent. I’m a little kid again, and I’m watching my mom’s fingertips stroke my cheeks, my forehead. They’re saying, “We’ll be okay, you and me. You and me, Sam Lee,” a rhyme I can’t get enough of, how it pleads and pleads its simple singsong of love.
And how my dad’s reciting it now, too, his version at least: “You okay, Sam Lee P.? Hey, you still with me?”
I don’t answer, and he says, “Did you get a good look at that?” his voice low-pitched in the sudden calm, as if this is some huge and lucrative secret to be guarded. “Jesus, we got us a demon on our hands, don’t we now?”
“It sure works,” I say, and he says back, “Work? Hell, it’d chew right through a pit grave of diamonds.”
Diamonds, I think. And gold and silver, too, and to hear him tell it, come hell or high water, we’ll get the wrecker and stump grinder unstuck first thing tomorrow morning, and continue to brainstorm our way to both fortune and fame. We’re walking step for step through the knee-deep grass, and the northern lights flaring big time. He’s sky-higher than ever on our prospects, and he says, “We’ll make it happen, you hear me? We’re in this for keeps, Sam Lee Penwaydon.”
“Yes,” I say, still disoriented but otherwise unafraid. And believing, almost—and most of all—that in the final tally, no matter how crazy, or how long it sometimes takes, a good father always gets it right.
Jack Driscoll is the author of the forthcoming story collection The World Of A Few Minutes Ago (Wayne State University Press, 2011). He has won the AWP short fiction award, and his stories have appeared in The Georgia Review, The Southern Review, Ploughshares, the 2009 Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction in Pacific University’s low-residency program. (5/2011)