The Slurred Message
“Thishis Bob,” he says on his cellphone message, an unfamiliar lisp creeping into his voice. Has he had a stroke? Is he drunk? Both are possible.
But he’s not home right now, and I don’t want to leave a message. I want to talk with him in person, but he’s not answering his phone these days. He’s mad at me, and my guess is that when “Andy Whitman” shows up on Caller ID he studiously avoids contact. There’s nothing unusual there. It’s been a lifelong pattern for both of us. I’ve been a disappointing son. He’s been a disappointing father. We mutually express our disappointment with one another, but not to each other. That would involve actual communication, something neither of us is very good at.
“I’m dying,” he told me the last time I talked with him. “I have congestive heart failure, COPD, my kidneys are failing due to diabetes, and I can’t walk.”
“He’s not dying,” my sister tells me. She would know. She’s the only family member who has any sort of a relationship with him. Or maybe she wouldn’t know. She has her own issues – an abused kid and an abused adult who keeps coming back to my father for more abuse. “He just likes to whine,” my sister says. “It gives him something to live for.”
He is 75 years old, and he can’t remember my kids’ names. It’s not encroaching senility. He’s never been able to remember my kids’ names. I’m not sure if he remembers my name. But he remembers my wife’s name, Kate, because Kate belongs to the gender that matters. He’s always loved women. He loves Kate. And he’s pursued relationships with women, one after another, all through his crappy marriage, and long after that marriage ended. Actually, “relationships” doesn’t quite describe it. My dad doesn’t know how to have relationships. But he knows how to pursue women. Possessor of two heads, he’s always been led by the wrong one. Now he’s too old for women, a shriveled up old geezer whose pickup lines don’t work anymore, and so he pursues relationships with men. He’s recently decided to change his will, to leave his meager possessions to his “roommate.” And, as the executor of his will, I am having none of it.
“I want you to change your will,” I told him the last time I talked with him. “It’s your will, and you can do what you please, but I don’t want to be the executor if you’re going to leave your stuff to someone who’s not a part of our family.”
Now he’s mad, and he won’t answer the phone. “Thishis Bob,” is the only response I hear. But he’s not there, or if he’s there, he’s not telling.
My dad was an all-city football player. He had the right genes. My grandfather was a member of the Canton Bulldogs, who won the American Professional Football Association championship in 1923. Jim Thorpe, often named as the greatest athlete of the 20th century, was their star player. My grandfather was a guard, and a good one. My dad was a guard, and a good one. I was a guard, and at 5’ 4” and 140 pounds, a little too undersized and immobile to withstand the assaults of linebackers, even in eighth grade.
My dad watched impatiently from the sidelines. “Stay with him!,” he would yell. “Don’t let up on that block! Stay with him!” I would be lying on the ground, flattened by some 6’ 2” flying missile.
At some point my dad took it upon himself to become the line coach. He would come home from work, change out of his business suit, don an old football jersey and sweatpants, and head out to the practice field, where I and my teammates were toiling away in the mud. “You don’t mind if I work with the linemen, do you?,” he asked Coach Best, whose son Art was destined to star for Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl. And so the St. Matthew Elementary School Mustangs took on another coach, and my dad explained the intricacies of proper footwork and strength and conditioning and the physics of using the legs as leverage in blocking. He’s in all the team pictures, a little off to the side, a faded football jersey stretched over his beergut. He squints out at the camera as if he’s ready to lunge out and knock the photographer on his backside.
None of it helped. I never could be anything but a lousy pulling guard.
A Candy Foxxx Christmas
It’s Christmas Eve, 1994, and my daughters, ages 8 and 6, anxiously await the arrival of Santa Claus.
Instead, my dad shows up with a new girlfriend in tow. Her name is Becky, and she’s a dancer. “Oh, do you do ballet?” Kate asks. Kate is so sweet. “No, I dance at a club,” Becky says. Kate ponders that one.
My dad totes in a bulging plastic trash bag. He dumps the contents out on our living room floor. There are presents, lots and lots of brightly wrapped presents. My daughters’ eyes widen. “Seventeen presents!” my daughter Katryn marvels. My dad picks one up. “This one’s for you,” he says, and hands a package to Becky.
Becky, whose nom de strip is Candy Foxxx, is maybe 30, maybe 50, it’s hard to tell. She looks at my dad with utter contempt. I know within the first two minutes of meeting her that she doesn’t give a rip about this old man and his Sugar Daddy pretensions, that she’s here in my house for one reason, and one reason only. She rips open the package, unwraps a dress. “Thanks,” she says.
My dad picks up another present. “Oh, look,” he says, “this one’s for you, too.” Becky unwraps a necklace. “Thanks,” she says in a monotone.
We watch this sordid exchange fifteen more times. The second hand inches along. There is wrapping paper scattered all over my living room floor. I watch my daughters’ eyes. I would give anything to shield them from this, to spare them this scene.
We eat our Christmas cookies and drink our eggnog in almost total silence. “Well, we have to be running,” my dad says. He bundles up the dresses, the necklaces, the purses, the perfume in the plastic bag. “Nice to meet you,” Becky says, averting her eyes. And then they are gone.
“Grandpa didn’t even say goodbye to us,” Katryn says.
“No, he doesn’t know how to,” I tell her. “He doesn’t know what to say.” And it’s true.
One on None
It’s a late summer Saturday evening in 1970. I’m fourteen, almost fifteen, and my dad is 37. We’re out in the driveway, shooting hoops, as we often are, and a couple of my friends stop over. Then a couple more dads drop by and something wondrous occurs. Fathers and sons engage in an impromptu pickup game of basketball.
Bodies bang. Elbows flail. The dads are into it, hearkening back to the glory days in their high school gynmasiums, and each kid wants to show the old man a thing or two about his own mad skills. It’s a ferocious game fought on an unassuming middle-class suburban Chicago cul-de-sac.
My father, overweight, out of shape, hangs back on the perimeter. No one pays much attention to him. The real action is underneath the basket. Finally, out of desperation, one of his teammates notices him out there, twenty feet from the hoop, wide open, and passes the ball to him. He launches a shot from his hip, an odd, crabbed-looking shot that anyone within five feet of him could easily block. But there is no one within five feet of him, and he swishes it.
It happens again. And again. The old pulling guard muscles, long atrophied, kick into gear, the old motor memory vaguely recalls how this is done, and he does it. Again and again. Our team – my dad and I, another friend and his dad – win the game, easily, and my dad is the surprise star player.
“You leave me open and I’ll kill you,” my dad confides afterward to an admiring dad. “I may be the greatest one-on-none player in America.”
Now he won’t pick up his phone. I let it ring and ring, and eventually hear “Thishis Bob.”
I go outside in the summer sunshine and shoot some hoops. It’s not much, but I’m too out of shape to run, and I have to get rid of this nervous energy, this tension. I make five shots in a row, ten shots in a row. I may be the greatest one-on-none player in America. I’ve never really learned to shoot properly. I’ve tried, but I just can’t do it. And so I stand out there in the driveway in suburban Westerville, Ohio; shoot from the hip and drill it from twenty feet.