When I was seventeen, I flew to California to meet my father. I wore a shimmery blue A-line floor length skirt with a sparkly moon on the bottom in the front, and a red hoodie with 3/4 length sleeves because that’s what they wore in the Delia’s catalog and my only dream then was to imagine myself one of those girls: capable of effortless, cool outfits, endlessly reaching into my closet and producing something other than the same pit-stained baby tee that said something like DOLLHOUSE or FRESHJIVE on the front. Oh, and headphones: anything with an image of those chunky serious record producer-style headphones on the front meant Cool. It meant Probably Has a Skateboard. It meant Is Interesting to Talk To About Stuff Like Bjork and Knows About Bands Like Snowpony. It meant oh yeah I can totally afford a shit ton of $34 tank tops on my Dairy Queen paycheck. And since I was seventeen, nothing really had to mean anything else, I guess.
My father told me a story in between driving me to one place or another (driving everywhere, we spent the whole trip in the car: visiting the rehab facility where he had spent nearly 15 years, visiting his mother and stepfather, driving to see this or that relative), in the story he had been crashing in some drug dealer’s apartment. It was a trashed out old Victorian home in the Haight-Ashbury district, where scores of them would come just to find a place to do drugs on an old mattress somewhere in the dark. Upstairs, they squatted for days just shooting up, coming down and shooting up again. In the midst of the euphoria, something kept shaking them from their stupor and crashing them back to reality: a busker on the street below, wheezing his heart out for the passersby. All was well and groovy until his harmonica came into play, a screech so incompatible with the drug haze, they all conferred (as much and as closely as a whole lot of really high people can) over what to do about the noise. My father, ever the man to take action, found a soup pot and filled it with water, and dumped it out the window right onto Bob Dylan’s head.
“You threw water…on Bob Dylan??“
“Well,” my father shrugged, his eyes scanning the curb where he once scored, the curb that used to look like a hippie paradise but was now home to an Urban Outfitters with a giant plastic Buddha in the middle of the floor, “he wasn’t Bob Dylan yet.”
He had so many stories like this. They were his only stories, really: things he did while he was high. Because he was always high, from the age of twelve to the moment he entered rehab, then again after, then again, then again. So high it was okay to smoke in the car with his two babies in their car seats in the back, so high it didn’t matter anymore if it was heroin hidden in the basement workshop where small-town dads were supposed to keep wrenches and porn. He once got so high, he said, that he lost time completely, and woke up in a hotel room with just the elastic rings of the tops of his tube socks, dangling around his ankles, some tatters of the yarn attached, and the wreckage of an epic binge all around him. He was injecting into his feet by then, of course, so who knows what really happened to his socks, though he maintains that he wore his shoes for so long they rotted inside. Maybe they did. Maybe that wasn’t Bob Dylan on the corner, just some other fool with a guitar and a harmonica.
It seems like there would be lots of them, how probable is it that Bob Dylan was the only one to come up with that? Of course, you can’t really trust the memory of a serious drug abuser. You can’t really trust anything they come up with. I used to tell myself it meant we were almost kind of a little bit famous: my dad threw water on Bob Dylan! Now I see that it fits neatly into a folder and slides into the file where I put all the lore of my father’s long and blurry drug years.
What I really, actually know about my father could fit into my hand, and all of it is stitched together from the things he told my mother.
His father left him on the side of the road once, during a family trip: just pushed him out of the car and tossed his pillow out after him (across his mother’s lap, out her window) and drove away. I used to imagine the road as being in the middle of nowhere, like a desert, but now I see it as having fruit stands on either side, selling avocados and melons. I see that there are diners and gas stations, but it’s still a lonely and heartbreaking landscape when you think of a little boy in the midst of it, a little boy trying to keep his upper lip straight while facing the ultimate rejection, watching his family shrink into the distance, the yellow California sun fading into the horizon ahead of them like an egg yolk sliding down a wall. His two brothers don’t turn around in the back seat, maybe his father has told them not to. The little woman at the fruit stand is staring, waiting. He goes into the diner and wonders who to call, how to call–he has no money.
His mother, I imagine, said nothing, preferring to wait for the literal dust to settle behind the car, for her husband to cool off and turn back. For most of the rest of his life, my father would try and fail to convince his mother that he was worth turning back for–and I don’t think it ever crossed her mind that she had any kind of role or responsibility in it, in motherhood, apart from feeding and disciplining them. I don’t think it occurred to her that she was becoming a mausoleum for the damage her husband caused her children.
This, right here on this dusty road, where he is a briefly abandoned twelve year old boy, is where I lose my father.
Somewhere along that road he met my mother, and if ever two more similarly and perfectly damaged people found each other, I can’t say. He was on a healthy, drug-free spell and working at a Denny’s as a line cook. She was sleeping in a tent on the front porch of the house rented by her cult leader and filled with his followers (she was in trouble for some kind of transgression and being punished with porch sleeping, a thing she relished, because if cult leaders know anything it’s how to find the people with the worst parental-induced damage and replicate it in exactly the way you like it). All of her Denny’s tips went to the cult leader, and she couldn’t have been happier.
There wasn’t any getting together with my father, she said, no moment when they became an item. They just understood from the beginning that they were together. He ridiculed the cult leader until she started saving her money, until she rented her own place in Santa Cruz. That’s how he got her out, even when they kept calling and shaming her to come back to her porch tent punishment: he laughed at them, that kind of laugh where you throw your head back and look as if you’ve unhinged your own jaw to let out a laugh that was just too big for your natural anatomy.
The cult was over. They lived in the little apartment on their Denny’s wages. They got pregnant and got an abortion. They drove up to his mother’s ranch house in northern California and got high in the den with his little brother, stretched out on the carpet at 2 am and laughing about nothing, when she stormed in and demanded to know what they were doing, shouted at my father to leave “and take your whore with you.” He had a nickname for her, some kind of red wine that he liked, something I’ve Googled endlessly and cannot find or figure out how to spell. She got pregnant again, and he made her sandwiches of graham crackers, peanut butter, and bananas. It tasted so good, she said, she’s never eaten it again out of fear that it wouldn’t ever taste that good again. She came home to Southern Illinois, obviously pregnant, and my grandmother and great-grandmother took her out shopping for maternity clothes. He joined her and they settled into the little house on Glenwood, a rental property owned by my grandfather. They decided to try and do the family thing in that shitty little coal mining town, and maybe for a while it worked.
Years ago, a coworker asked me what my father said or thought about something. He was one of those men who felt it was his duty to know everything about the women in the office. He said we were a family and it became clear over time that he imagined himself the head of it. He demanded the appropriate amount of morning greetings and afternoon goodbyes from the women in the office, out of respect, he said. So, for this reason, our real fathers and what they thought came up a lot for this man, who probably imagined himself on some sort of regional golf team with all of our dads, having taken up the responsibility for the care and training of all of their adult daughters here in this office.
I stared and my mind felt blank and terrified when he asked me this. My mouth dropped open and I wasn’t sure whether to lie. (I’d done that before: once, at church camp, I felt that the truth of my life made me shameful and farther from God, farther, that is, than the kids with normal families. So I told one of my camp counselors, who I knew was a father, that my father adored me and thought I was wonderful. Saying it made me want to cry–but I choked it out. The man scoffed and said “I’m SURE he does,” because my cabin had just organized and carried out a plot to steal all the pool balls from the rec hall and hide them in one of my stuffed animals. He scoffed because he had just found the 30lb stuffed frog and busted us, and because I’d done such a good job of saying the words that they sounded like the lines from an atrophied 90s sitcom.)
I stood there with my mouth dangling and finally my coworker said, “Oh, I’m sorry, is your dad gone?” As if this or anything else was his business. I nodded and hoped for the entire thing to be over. “When did he pass?” he asked, my god the things men will step in and take without asking, and the question blitzed my mind so hard, I wasn’t sure what to say and I still don’t remember what I said. He didn’t pass, he’s just gone.
It all came apart after I was born, as if it ever had a chance of staying together.
My father drove a truck for Scot Lad foods, carrying loads of generic branded goods across the tri-state area all night. He dosed himself on dilaudid and coke day and night, staying up for hours at a time. If he wasn’t raking and arranging the gravel on the side of the road by their house, he was accusing my mother of plotting against him, throwing her up against walls, pawning her jewelry (a garnet ring, with four little pearls and two opals), stealing her savings (there was $400 then one day just an empty box). If the responsibilities of fatherhood ever entered his mind, they served only to weigh it down further and drive him to do more drugs. He lost the Scot Lad job when he took the turn toward Evansville, Indiana; across the ravine and into the next state, too fast. The truck rolled down the steep embankment, pouring its entire load of white sugar into the water. He sat there, strapped upside-down and high as shit, without a scratch on him. And he emerged from the whole thing perfectly faultless: the environmental cleanup, the wreckage, the drugs. My mother’s grandfather, who had gotten him the job, also got him released from it and all responsibility for the wreck. My father swore to my mother that he’d get clean, he got a job as a line cook in a restaurant in town, he promised her he would be different and better. She realized that she didn’t care what he did, that her feelings about him were completely ambivalent. She asked him to leave her and offered to buy him a plane ticket, but he insisted on being left on the side of the road somewhere so he could hitchhike back to California.
January 13, 1983: This is where I lose my father, on the side of the road in Marion, Illinois, with his thumb out. Right here, glaring at my mother sitting in the car, wipers smearing snowflakes across the windshield, this is the road where I lose him.
When you’re a hopeful child, even something as depressing as a birthday card made from a used and re-used file folder, with a Grateful Dead skeleton pasted on the front, sent from a California prison, even something as awful as that can make you fly for weeks on possibility. When you’re seventeen, drug stories are cool. Those smeared green prison tattoos of skulls and bones that look like they were drawn on in Magic Marker are edgy. Prison and rehab are these romantic ideas as long as you get to be the star emerging from the middle of it all.
I am my father: I am his face, I am his look of incredulous innocence when I have definitely done the thing you accuse me of, for which I should be ashamed. I am his ability to look through the kitchen cabinets and put together the perfect meal out of nothing. I am his love of Mexican food, of wry humor that always comes alive at the opportunity to hurt someone’s feelings. I am his anger and his ignorance and his denial. I am years of years of his addiction, Christmas cards from prison commissaries, butterflies and bad writing. I’m his dry brown skin, baked in the California sun, creped by years of exposure, his ringless hands, his exhausted eyes. I’m a cast iron pot and a wooden cutting board that belonged to his grandmother, the things he brought with him and then left behind: I am heavy and dependable where he was neither. I am down in the reservoir when the truck goes over the rail, I’m in the water turning sweet and gray around me, the idea of fatherhood drowning next to someone’s tossed-over refrigerator and the carcass of an old innerspring mattress.
This is where I lost him: getting out of a stranger’s car on some street in California, newly free of his familial responsibilities and looking to score. Going up and down these alleys, places where I never existed or mattered, streets where Bob Dylan sings or doesn’t. On the map of my father’s life, the corners and streets are always changing, dead ends coming up everywhere, everybody else’s fault. You little fucking bitch, he wrote, You’re a bitch just like your mother. You either talk to me or I’ll give all my money to my wife’s kids when I die. (When he did die, on December 4, 2020, I don’t think he was married to her anymore. He expired alone in an ICU in California, his body handed over to sepsis and kidney failure, which I’m told is usually the result after years of intravenous drug use. I don’t like to imagine what a California ICU looked and felt like in the height of COVID-19. I don’t like to imagine most of what my father went through.)
I don’t know why I’m telling you this. I have convinced myself that I have nothing to say, that if I did, I wouldn’t know how to say it. My brain has let go of all of the curvy, elegant words it once knew. I am frequently tired by just the thought of writing. It’s like I was doing it and then someone poured water on my head and I decided it was time to stop. But something is telling me to sing this song, even before I know all the words, before it’s finished and polished and when most of it is just annoying harmonica breaks. This is it, tangled up; this is me, sorting it out.