Sunday, June 13, 2010

my old man

in anticipation of father's day in a week, here's an essay I published 13 years ago. I was thinking about it this morning and thought it was time to trot it out.

My Old Man
by R.T. Bledsoe

I could kick him. Just a quick one to the shin would do it. Then a fast jab in
his ribs, and when he doubled over an elbow to the kidneys, and he'd be

It'd be absurdly simple. There's no doubt I'm more imposing physically. My
old man portrays tall very well, and until my growth spurt last year I thought
him the tallest man in the world. But at twelve I'm taller and broader. In a
few years I'll play an undistinguished defensive position for the Taconic Hills Titans and
years after that I'll run distance races just for the love of motion.

There's an oak in the front yard next to the road, and it looks like the three of us are
lined up tallest to smallest for the bus: the oak, me and the old man. I could leave him
behind the oak and nobody'd be any the wiser.

It's hard to be cool when your father loves you. It isn't even some sick, incestuous
thing. Nothing that good. My old man loves me. He took me shopping for school at the
Government Exchange this year. I figure, here I'm twelve now, practically a teen, I think
I can choose my own clothes, just pay for them, thanks. But while I'm eyeing Levis and
fantasizing Laurie Gallop will take the hint and start calling me "stud," here he comes
with an extra large pair of Dickies, saying "These should fit, honey."

The bat at the counter looks to think that's the darlingest thing she's ever heard. I could
belt them both.

Other kids are lucky. My pal Pfeiffer doesn't even know where his old man is. He took
off after Pfeiffer was born. Bone is even luckier. Every couple weeks he gets on the bus
sporting a new shiner the size and color of an eggplant heel. Once he showed me a
cigarette burn on his shoulder.

"Wow," I breathed. "Did your old man really do that?"

"Yeah," he says. He's wearing the shirt with the burn hole still in it. He centers the burn
with the hole so it looks fresh. "We were watching SWAT and he tipped over to put out
his smoke. He was tanked and I was asleep leaning on the couch and he missed the
ashtray and got my shoulder."

Bone's old man works at the tire shop. His fingers are the shape of Oscar Meyer
weiners. I imagine they operate as individual hydraulic lifts. "How'd it feel?"

"It didn't hurt too much. It was kind of like when you get that booster shot with all the
pins. Only it burned after and it smelled funny. My old man put this stuff on it and kept
saying he was sorry." He rubbed the shoulder to put a red burnish around the wound
and then ripped the hole a little wider. "Don't tell anybody that last part, okay."

My old man is a banker. He might as well be an accountant. He wears ties and suits
and a too-large black coat when it rains or snows and a plaid fedora with a yellow
feather. He and Mother are teetotalers and most of their meals come out of boxes or
cans. They go to church sometimes but don't make a religion of it. About the only thing
my old man has in common with the fathers of my friends is that his old man used to
get tanked and beat the snot out of him too.

Lucky bastard.

The bus comes down the road. It stops at Russel's a half mile off. The old man says
"Have a good day, honey," and leans up to kiss my cheek.

On mornings like this I praise this oak to the skies. For two years it sheltered me while I
watched Kim Russel tanning. Last summer my old man caught me with his binoculars.
He didn't even bawl me out, just chuckled and said "well now."

I haven't been able to look at Kim since without blushing. Bone says she thinks I like
her but what could I do with a fourteen year old girlfriend? She's just watching material.

The old man runs into the house to lock up before he heads to work. In another two
years, when I have my ulcer and Dr. Bardwell, bless him, explains to my parents it's
caused by riding the bus, these goodbyes will be tendered in the privacy of his car after
he drives me to school. The old man will make himself ten minutes late every morning
in order that my ulcer doesn't worsen. Later, when my stomach gets better, it'll turn out
it really is from riding the bus. But for now Mother swears it's the horror comics the old
man buys for me.

I get on the bus. The coolest place to sit is on the back bench and Pfeiffer saved me a
spot. We trade comics weekly and today he's got a Swamp Thing to exchange for a
Tomb of Dracula. I hold out. Swamp Thing's lame. He throws in The Demon and I say

The bus rumbles on and maybe it's because I called his first offer lame that Pfeiffer
says, loud enough so everyone in the bus hears, "Hey, is that your dad following us?"
I turn around and sure enough there he is, less than five feet from the bumper. His
Monte Carlo looks like a Chihuahua sniffing a Doberman. It's winter and my old man is
a black crumple at the wheel. He's a plaid-topped nightmare.

I turn around. "No, man" I mumble. "That's not my dad, I don't even know where my
dad is, we think he's in Indiana somewhere, I don't know who that guy is--"

"Hey, he's blowing kisses, man!"

There's a blur and sixty kids pile into the back seat. My head sinks and it would hit the
floor if my hands weren't there to catch it.

I have to look.

Bone asks "Is your dad a fag, man?"

Because there's my old man in his feathered fedora puckering up and popping off a
couple good ones. I wonder if there's a shelter for kids who are too-loved. He smiles
and it makes him look like one of those insipid felt-covered dogs that sit in the rear
window of old people's cars and nod at anything. I hate him. I hate him the way
magnets hate each other, juttering away when you put the wrong end near them. I hate
him and he loves me as absolutely as metal filings love static.

Just before the bus turns left and he turns right, my old man waggles his fingers at me.
One hundred twenty two eyes look at me.

I wave back. What else can I do.

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