I remember over the years, feeling unjustified in the sadness I felt over the absence of my father in my life. I was always assured it was for the best. Good riddance, so to speak.
I saw him a handful of times when he passed through town, his small red pickup truck parked out in front of our house for a couple of hours. It had a small camper on top as I recall, just big enough for one person to sleep. I remember once watching him standing just inside the camper, his head nearing scraping the ceiling, flipping thick, bruise-red hamburgers in a black cast iron skillet over a little one- burner camp stove. I recognized, even then, the distinctive stench of meat that had turned.
He did, as predicted by my nana– turn out to be an unrepentant vagabond layabout in the truest sense, for the rest of his life. In that respect, I guess he was a real disappointment as a parent, although I secretly pined for him and wrote him letters when I was first learning how to form paragraphs. I still have one, written in carefully penciled strokes on thick, yellowed paper.
We went to visit him one afternoon when I was around thirteen. He was camped at some little park in the wilds of a small north Florida town.
I was a sassy young thing in my tight blue jeans and corduroy blazer. With my feathered hair and makeup by Bonne Bell. I was wise to the ways of the world now, possessing my newly acquired carnal insight. Bolstered by the false confidence the attentions of young men can provide a love-starved girl.
He couldn’t wait to show me off at the local watering hole. The sound of the billiard balls clacking together– the bartender scraping the change from the little plastic compartments and slamming the cash drawer securely closed after each transaction. The cigarette smoke. Hank Williams on the jukebox. The black leather upholstered stools that swiveled around to face the patron to the left or to the right. Or one could simply face the tables and watch the lacquered balls roll around the worn green felt.
The smell of a cool, dark bar on a sunny afternoon will always resonate in my memory and even today, my eyes invariably gravitate toward the wide open door of a smoky, dank little dive on the other side of town as I drive past.
My father taught me how to play pool, while my mother socialized at the bar. The more he drank, the more candid he became. Between explaining how to line up combinations and calling pockets, he tried to explain the estrangement between him and my mother. How they would always love each other even though they can’t be together– both being Capricorns, after all. Too much alike, he had said.
“Your mother. You have to understand her way. She doesn’t have to say I love you. She loves like an animal. Like a lioness. It’s instinct. Pure instinct. We are not sentimental– Capricorns. We told each other only once and that’s all we need. She’s a wild thing, your mother. She will never be tamed. I tried.”
He asked me what I wanted to be when I got out of school. I told him either a secretary, like my mom, or a fashion model. Either way, though, I wanted to be independent and I wanted to make it on my own. I guess I had been watching a lot of divorced mom sit-coms. Bonnie Franklin comes to mind.
It amused me in some way…this man, my father. Trying to play a role, now that it is too late. In my mind, there was no useful wisdom he could impart at this stage in the game—but he considered himself a bit of a sage. And so, between sips of Budweiser he advised me as only a father can.
“Darling daughter…” He drawled, grinning through his remaining nicotine-mottled teeth. “One thing you gotta remember. It’s a man’s world. You are too short to be a model and you’ll never have the body either. Now, that Sandy Dennis…did I ever tell you I met her? I even got her autograph somewhere… “
My mother drove us home that night, drunk. But I stayed awake, to keep her awake.
To keep us on the road.