Editors’ note: A continuation of some of the best writing Notre Dame Magazine published in decades past about the men who’ve helped make us who we are. Happy Father’s Day.
Winning these weekly games of racquetball gives me no particular pleasure, Daughter, and seeing you tie yourself in knots trying to beat me makes me wonder what either of us is trying to prove. Victory over your father will come, Daughter, and when it does, it will not be as sweet as you think it will be.
I want to tell you a story. It happened long ago in another country. The hero is 30 years old, and he has three children under the age of 5 and a wife at home taking care of them. There may never have been a more earnest father than the hero of my story.
My hero is a writer. He writes articles for the Chicago papers, rates vehicles for Camper Coachman, investigates trailer deals for RV Retailer, does annual reports for any school board with a thousand dollars to pay him. Editors don’t always want his articles, and when they do want them, they don’t pay what they are worth. So the writer drives a 1964 Chevrolet that roars when he starts it, smokes when it climbs a hill and keeps on running after he cuts the engine. He fills the tires with air every day; he is so poor he can only nod humbly when gas station attendants tell him he owes it to his family to buy new tires.
Four evenings a week, from 11 at night until 7 the next morning, the writer puts on a blue uniform and a hat with a badge above the bill and becomes a security guard. Sometimes he puts drunken students to bed. Sometimes he tells crowds of people to stand behind the rope. Sometimes people tell him to go to hell.
Most people think he is a security guard, but he tells himself and everyone else that he is a writer. And since the world doesn’t let him get away with many pretensions at this time of his life, we won’t take that one away from him just yet. We’ll call him the Writer.
Let’s give the Writer in our story some blue sky, a single billowing white cloud, a warm sunny day and a perfect magazine assignment. He will boat down the Yellow River on a gorgeous summer day, photograph the sights, catch a carp, sleep in a tent, and write about the experience for the two million readers of a Sunday newspaper. The writer borrows his father’s aluminum boat, and over the next two days he floats the boat 25 miles down the lazy river.
When he lands, his father backs his pickup up to the riverbank. The Writer pulls the tailgate down and tries to lift the back end of the boat onto the pickup. He pulls and he puffs, but the boat falls, each time, onto the muddy bank. He cannot lift that aluminum boat onto the pickup to save his soul.
“Goddamn it, stand to [sic] hell back,” the Writer’s father shouts, using a special voice full of contempt that only his wife and children ever hear. The father steps into the water in his shined street shoes, grabs the handles on the back of the boat, and flings it onto the pickup.
“See if you can run the God-damned rope through the bow and throw it over to me,” the father says. “See if you can do something right.”
On the drive home, the Writer sulks. He keeps his thoughts to himself, but I will tell you what those thoughts were. The writer cursed his father and wished him a thousand misfortunes. Not knowing the Writer had put a curse upon him, the father talked about the weather, about the Cubs’ chances of winning the pennant, about a fellow he knew in Wabash.
The story jumps forward 15 years and moves to another country. You know some of the rest, Daughter. That nice old man you always tell me I should be nicer to, whose diabetic eyes light with love when you walk into the room, who tells you stories about me that make me sound like Einstein and Gretzky rolled into one; well, that old guy is the father in the pickup. That old man who tells you all those stories about his love for his son never said “I love you” to his son. Not once.
And the seething 30-year-old Writer who cursed his father with an adolescent’s powerless passion? Well, some money and human kindness, 15 years of good luck, and a job that gives him some respect have changed him, Daughter. He’d like to think they’ve changed him beyond recognition. But you know that man, too.
There are some good morals to this story, Daughter. I know you’d rather be somewhere else, so stop twisting the handle of your duffel bag around your hand or you’ll cut off your circulation. I’m almost finished.
The first moral is that curses do work. All the curses the Writer uttered against his father came true. The Writer’s father pees with pain, can’t turn his head without wincing, and it’s all he can do to push himself out of his chair. Today, he couldn’t lift that boat if his life depended on it.
The second moral is that beating your father is the work of the first third of your life. Once you beat him — and you will, Daughter — you won’t lose to him again.
But here is the strangest moral. The Writer would lift his curse if he could. He would like nothing better than to see his father wade up a river with a fly rod in his hand again or drink six bottles of beer on a Sunday afternoon again.
In fact, the Writer would like to throw his arms around his father, tell his father he forgives him, and ask his father to forgive him a few things, too. But that is not how the Writer and his father work.
There’s another moral here, Daughter; I’ll say it and you can be on your way. The writer loves you as he loves the air he breathes. And even though words are his bread and butter, he can’t seem to say that to you any better than his father could say it to him.
The time is coming when you’ll win that racquetball game and some other games, too. The Writer won’t mind. He knows who he is, after all, and winning racquetball games is not where it’s at for him.
But he’s scared. He is afraid he will lose you the way his own father lost him.
Philip Milner lives in Nova Scotia.