My father disappeared on July the Fourth of 2001. I remember this because it was the Fourth of July and because one never forgets the exact date for such things. That day, he’d elected to not attend the fireworks show at our rented cabin in Possum Kingdom, a family tradition since my brother and I were boys, saying he only wanted to relax at home with a promise of driving out the next day to meet up with us. That evening myself, my mother and brother, my uncle Val and his wife Vanessa and their little girl,
my aunt Viv, her new husband and stepson along with a cousin I hadn’t seen since I was five accompanied by his new girlfriend, roasted bratwursts over a campfire along the lake shore, drinking Bud Light in cans as we spoke, everyone reacquainting with one another, everyone red faced and half-drunk beneath the summer sun that turned to sticky evening amid plastic foldout chairs and soggy footprints in the lake silt, stealing glances at one another’s physiques once our inhibitions had weakened
enough to get in the water.
“Sam,” my mother called from a wicker chair that groaned beneath her considerable weight.
“Be a doll and fetch us some more beer. And take Seth with you.” My mother’s speech was slurred though we knew her as anything but a lightweight, having seen her put away an entire case herself prior to having my brother run out for more liquor. Seth was lassoing some bait onto his fish hook in a pair of dank swimming trunks that sagged in the back.
“Pass. I only spend time alone with him when someone dies,” he said.
“Seth, stop. You know you’re a year older than Sam. He needs you to pay for the alcohol. Go with your brother in case something happens, God forbid.”
“Pass,” Seth repeated, turning to show us his half eclipsed dimply backside as he approached the water with his fishing pole.
“I’ll go,” said my Uncle Val’s wife Vanessa. She’d flung her large bag over her shoulder and was tying a peach sarong around her narrow waist. “I need cigarettes anyway.”
“You’re a lifesaver, dear,” my mother gushed, a tiki torch illuminating the left side of her big smiling face. “Our Val knows how to pick them.”
While mother fished two twenties from her purse, I watched Vanessa brush away a pattern of sand from her pale inner thigh, her gaze catching mine and saying she didn’t mind me admiring her exposed flesh. “Be sure to take the back road off 337, Sam,” warned my mother. “The main highway is littered with damn highway patrolmen. Oh, I suppose they’re just doing their jobs, but whatever happened to the days of letting people have their fun as long as it didn’t hurt anyone?” “I heard that,” Val said from the darkness of the pasture before stumbling into the light, buttoning his cargo shorts but forgetting the zipper, drunkenly skewering a fresh bratwurst as he sat himself between vines of washed up kelp. “Thank you so much, Vanessa,” my mother said, handing me her money. “It’s no problem, Virginia,” replied Vanessa. “Like I said, I need smokes. See that Val doesn’t drink too much while I’m gone?”
I was twenty then, two months from twenty-one and enrolled in the Nolan county community college, working nights as an assistant manager at Dairy Queen to pay my rent and ‘93 Corolla. I was bowlegged, criminally awkward and untouched, the extent of my sexual prowess amounting to a string of sloppily fingered twats with half a dozen unused condoms in my glovebox, though I hid it well. Vanessa’s cigarette was a wavering orange dot in the dimness of the passenger seat.
“What’s your daughter’s name?” I asked.
She exhaled a plume of smoke that dissipated against the windshield. She rolled down her window and tossed her cigarette out, three rogue embers breaking off and extinguishing themselves midair. “Alyssa’s four,” she said. “She’s not Val’s.”
“Who is her father, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I saw her shoulders rise and fall nonchalantly. I watched her peripherally the entire time. “Just some guy I used to know,” she answered. “But Val’s nice. He’s good with Alyssa and he does well for himself.” She shrugged again, holding her plastic lighter to the moonlight to gauge its fluid. “Better safe than sorry, I guess.”
I became more comfortable. Vanessa possessed a bitchy older sister charisma, reprimanding my awkward nature one instant and offering soothing words of encouragement the next. She asked me if I had a girlfriend. I said no. “Good,” she told me. “Girls are nothing but trouble. Best you just keep away
altogether.” She propped her bare feet on the dashboard and popped each toe beneath one heel, a sensuous cacophony of bubbles being pulled apart under her skin that caused me to adjust the stereo in engrossment.
We pulled into a drive through beer joint with neon pilsner logos and dumpster sized ice
machines. “What’ll it be,” asked a girl through the driver’s window. She had bad teeth and a dogeared community college textbook on the chair behind her. Before I could answer, Vanessa leaned across her seat and mine and handed the girl a fifty-dollar bill from her own purse. “Give me a thirty pack of Bud Light, two packs of Marlboro light 100’s and a bag of ice,” she said. “You didn’t have to do that,” I told her, her pert buttocks swiveling playfully in the air.
“It’s nothing. Tell Virginia to keep her money. I like your mother. She’s sweet. Either that or tell her you used it but pocket it for yourself like a bad little boy. Whatever. I won’t tell.” She smiled with the corner of her mouth, remained prone mere inches above me, the scent of shampoo and lake water mingling off her twizzled raven hair. The girl returned with the cigarettes and beer in a heavy paper sack, dropping Vanessa’s change into my nervous hand before emptying an ice bag into a cooler stored away in the trunk. At a red-light Vanessa reached into the bag for two beers,
cracking them one after the other and sucking the foam off the one she handed me. We drank and talked. She offered me a cigarette that for some reason I accepted and smoked down to the filter. “Pull over,” she said suddenly.
“Just pull over.”
The Corolla halted on a dusty shoulder of the highway. No sooner had I parked when Vanessa pounced, throwing her bony thigh over my waist to position her lower back against the steering wheel.
She undid her soggy bikini bottoms that tied at the hips, balling them up and tossing them on the dashboard next to her beer and Marlboros. She grabbed my face and kissed me violently, as though playing out some reverse role rape fantasy. “Get your pants off,” she whispered. The phrase I heard most growing up was, Lord, Sam looks just like Eugene. His face, that voice, the way he walks. Mm, just like Eugene. And they said it just like that. And they were right. I’d inherited my father’s narrow, craggy face that appeared sullen even in the happiest times. His broad shoulders that
looked like broccoli sprouts atop a thin stem on his otherwise scrawny physique. We both had hairlines receding just short of baldness, cursing us with two added inches of furrowed, putupon looking brow. I inherited his soft, swathing tone that people found either charming or frustrating depending on their ability to hear.
My father was a career postal worker, as was his father before him. Monday through Thursday he delivered mail on the south side of town. Fridays and Saturdays, he sorted letters in the back of the post office someplace. During tax season, he made extra money assessing other people’s W-2 forms at fifty dollars a pop, making him the only person in town who didn’t dread this time of year. “Never settle for normal, Sam,” he once told me behind a desk stacked with other people’s tax documents. When I asked him what he meant by that, he waved me out of the room and told me to close the door.
I fear I never understood the man. “Eugen’s impossible to know,” I heard his own father, my grandfather, say once. I suppose he had his moments. He taught my brother Seth and I the requisites: how to throw a fastball, a punch, the polite way to ask for something and how to assert ourselves when necessary, the sturdiness of a good Yes Sir, the astute chivalry of a well-placed No Ma’am, how to fill out money orders and envelopes for our mail order wrestling magazines, how to drive standard as well as automatic, and when the time came how to fill out job applications—employment history, special
training, etc. He cared not for football or baseball, for the NBA Finals or the World Cup. He didn’t watch Nascar or follow pro golf, and if you’d have asked him to name the heavyweight champion of the world he’d have looked at you with the same disinterest one gives a housefly they are too lazy to kill. The only thing that remotely caught my father’s interest was the Weather Channel, which he watched in the accompaniment of a Stouffers microwave dinner and a can of Coors original behind his locked office
door upstairs. It was always like that with him. Cold. Closed off. There but absent. And a sliver of me always marveled jealously when I saw friends interacting with their fathers in accordance with normalcy. Normalcy. It was one afternoon, right after I’d learned to drive, when he had me escort him to the grocery store for some hard-boiled eggs and brisket. Along the way, he said, “Hold on, Sam. Pull over here, will you?” He pointed to a burgundy tinted Cadillac parked outside the Lucky Wash laundromat. He wentinside and emerged moments later with a well-dressed man his own age with silver hair who stood
about my father’s height. They spoke a long while. Unsettling as it was, it was the only time I ever saw my father become animated. He laughed with this man, nodded in jovial agreement with this man. Once, I saw him jokingly punch this man on the arm like he’d never done my brother or me or anyone else. Then my father came back to the car for his cigarettes and zippo before rejoining the man outside the laundromat.
A minute later, he said, “Sam, do me a favor. Get the eggs and brisket and haul them to your mother for me. I’m going to catch a ride with my friend. Tell Virginia I’ll be home for dinner.” He closed the door before I could say bye, the sun having made his empty car seat so hot to the touch it burned like a skillet filed with grease.
I heard the arguments. I heard my mother shout at my father for his inattentiveness, his
rebuttals that were but pillow-y murmurs through the wall, the doors slamming and opening, and sometimes the wheels of our car screeching away when he’d had enough. It wasn’t uncommon to find my mother alone at the kitchen table afterwards, nursing a cocktail of Four Roses Yellow Label with Dr. Pepper, the ice cubes tinkling in her glass as she raised it to her lips.
“Seth,” I said to my brother through the night of our shared room. “Seth, wake up.”
“They’re fighting again.”
“Who cares? Go to sleep.”
I rolled over and closed my eyes, thinking the harder I shut them the easier it would be to slip into unconsciousness. “I can’t,” I finally said. I sat up against the headboard of my bed and toyed with a Rubik’s cube. I looked at my brother. “Think they’ll get divorced?”
Seth propped up on his elbow to face me, the white skull on his Steve Austin shirt the only decipherable image from across the room.
“They’re not getting divorced. They do this all the time and nothing ever comes from it. Now shut up and go to sleep.”
Nights like those Seth slept with his pillow wrapped around his head, a technique that might have worked for him but never me. On the ceiling above my bed hung a Michael Jordan poster. He was midair with a basketball in his right palm, tongue wagging with glimmering perspiration across his dark brow soaring above a pack of bewildered New York Nicks. I turned on a flashlight I kept beneath my bed and shined it on Michael’s face, then down to the twenty-three on his jersey, then up towards the basketball in his hand, over and over in a triangle until I finally slept.
My father reappeared on a sweltering dog day in August of 2015, the exact date of which I don’t recall. The housekeeper employed by the family living in our old house was cleaning out the refrigerator one afternoon when she noticed an odd circular carving in the wall behind it. By her account, she pressed the spot with her hand and the panel gave way to a secret room behind the fridge. Inside, the corpse of my father sat dead against the wall wearing a pink negligee, pearls, white pumps and red press on nails, a snub nose revolver we never knew he owned and which he used to end his life sitting at his side. The housekeeper claims she screamed and informed the police at once. I believed her.
Photos were taken, photos my mother and I saw of a skeletal corpse that was not at all ugly, appearing more like a well preserved archaeological discovery than some bizarre crime scene victim. His hair was scraggly and hung from the sides and back of his head like an old wizard. His toes were as curled and as black as over fried pork skins, the nails on them like bloated up pieces of yellowed hominy corn. Bizarrely, one photo depicted four wooden dolls encircling him ritualisticaly, each standing up and facing him as though witnesses to his suicide, the spot behind him a crimson blotch where his brains met the sheetrock. The coroner handed me a note the day after. It was stained beige with time and was addressed to a Cecil Farnsworth, zip code matching the very town I grew up in.
I suppose you’re wondering why I haven’t called or dropped by. The answer is I’m tired of lying and more tired of playing games. If you’d have wanted, we could have left here and started someplace fresh. I have just as much put away as you so getting set up would have been a cinch. But you’re too scared of that, aren’t you? You’re too afraid of what people will think, what they’ll say. I always said you were afraid of your own shadow. For God’s sake, Cecil, these aren’t the old days. People do this all the time. And you know what? They’re happy. And they look back and wonder how in the hell they let themselves pass so much time as people they weren’t, just like you and me have done. But it’s all the same, I
suppose. I’ve always believed everything happens for a reason, even if it means writing this letter in the state I’m in. I hope you’re well and aren’t worrying about me because I’m fine. I don’t have to hide anymore. I miss you.
I read it twice searching for a reference to my mother. I’d have settled for a single mention of Seth and I, but there was none. I never showed mother the note for fear it would kill her.
The following morning, I delivered the note to the address stamped on it. Cecil Farnsworth was the same man I’d seen with my father at the laundromat all those years ago only hunched over and brittle with hair as thin as wax paper. He unfolded it and read it on the porch in front of me, adjusting his glasses and squinting during the parts that most affected him. What repugnance I believe I possessed wanted to observe his reaction, his hurt, but watching him read that note I realized that was the last thing I wanted. I started to leave but he took my elbow gently in his trembling, liver spotted hand, the coolness of his air conditioner dancing out his front door and caressing my warm face. He mumbled a thank you and began reading the note again. I watched him reading it still as I drove away.
My mother was a great performer. She could pretend things were wonderful when they were dismal and vice versa. She was singing in the kitchen as I sat at the table in her tiny apartment, some heads of cabbage boiling on the stove in a large aluminum pot. I waited for her to say something on the matter, but she didn’t, opting instead to sing along to her favorite Elvis singles playing on the anniversary of his death.
“We’re caught in a trap, I can’t go back,” she chirped. I finally walked over and joined her at the sink where she was peeling potatoes over the garbage disposal, their brown curlicue skins dropping into a black hole of jagged, spinning metal. “It’s all right,” I said softly. She feigned as though she didn’t hear me, smiling at something through the window above the sink. I placed my hand over her chubby fist holding the potato peeler and squeezed it. “It’s all right,” I said again. She looked at me with her face that was a cemetery for broken capillaries, her cheeks the consistency of reddened burger from decadesof alcoholism. Suddenly the damn broke. She thrusted her face into my chest, weeping hard enough so that my torso tremored in accordance with her sobs. I nestled the back of her head into me and gently swayed her before the sink, the cabbage water boiling over in a simmering gurgle on the stove.
“What did I do?” mother wanted to know, her voice hoarse with emotion.
“You didn’t do anything,” I told her, “and don’t ever think otherwise.”
I squeezed her dearly, detecting on her the same smell she’d had since I was old enough to conceptualize smell. “Did you have any idea,” I asked. Mother backed away slowly, wiping tears away with her fingers as she sniveled. “I guess there were things he did,” she told me. “He was always his own kind of person. I always told myself it was Eugene being Eugene. The longer it went on the more comfortable I became believing that, I suppose.” She turned off the stove and put the cabbage pot to cool. She placed the skinned potatoes into a bowl and set them beneath the faucet to rinse. What she said next terrified me.
“I’ll say one thing. I can count on one hand how many times your father and I were intimate, because you and your brother were the result of both.”
Then just as abruptly as she had unburdened herself, my mother raised the volume on her radio and began performing again in a singsong voice that filled the kitchen. “Mrs. Applegate from downstairs is coming for dinner, Sam. Will you help set the table?”
I hardly recognized Vanessa at the funeral, if you can call it a funeral. I’d call it a pithy makeshift burial arranged so that my father’s side of the family, who were always eerily distant, could pay their last respects. She still possessed whatever had shaken me as a younger man but with an extra thirty pounds of baby weight clinging to her thighs and rear. She recognized me at once. She came over and embraced me with a breathy condolence, her arms around my neck so that my cheek touched her hair that was stiffened with hairspray and product. She was still with Val. They’d had three children together, two of which were twins. Her daughter Alyssa had blossomed into a green-eyed bombshell, garnering stares from every boy there as well as some of the older men shameless enough to gawk. As Vanessa spoke with mother and Seth, uncle Val snuck up and wrapped me in a headlock, tousling my hair and kissing the crown of my head like I was still eight years old. It was obvious he still didn’t know. The service got underway, closed casket to hide the macabre, bullet holed absurdity that was my father’s physical being. Several of my father’s retired mailman buddies stood at the pulpit to sharesome words, mostly about how dependable he was, what a swell guy he , his dedication to his family and job and how in his thirty plus years as a United States postal worker he was never less than professional. I wondered if they knew the particulars of his death, him being dolled up in drag in defiance of his impending mortality and forced heterosexuality.
At a family dinner afterwards, I kept staring at the curvature of Vanessa’s face, at the rogue lock of hair that hung over one eye to be evicted by her fingers before dangling again seconds later. I studied the way she chewed her food, the way she bounced her youngest on her knee with gusto when someone said something funny. I wondered if my father had died before or after we had done what we did. I wondered if the precise moment of his death had coincided with my moving inside of her as my mother sat waiting for her beer and my brother reeled in fish too small to keep. The irony of me discovering my sexuality as his was bringing his world to a sudden stop inspired a mild twinge of humor in me. It shouldn’t have, but it did.
Daniel Soliz is the author of several unpublished novels as well as a collection of short stories titled “Glass Pyramids.”