Mom used to say, “You have to understand your father. He grew up in the Great Depression.”
Or she’d say, “You have to understand your father. Where he grew up, you didn’t talk, you fought.”
Or she’d say, “You have to understand your father. When he ran away from home, no one even knew he was missing.”
Or she’d say, “You have to understand your father. He was only fifteen when he joined the Marines and the Marine Corps saved his life.”
Or she’d say, “You have to understand your father. He loves you but he doesn’t know how to show it. He was in the Marines. When he checks up on you, when he asks if you mowed the lawn or did your sit-ups and push-ups or finished your homework or called your grandmother, when he puts his face right up against your face and shouts at you, roars at you, when he puts his fist right up against your cheek and vibrates it with fury, that’s just what he went through in the Marines, it’s what they taught him, it’s what saved him, and he thinks it’s good for you because that’s what he wants, because he does love you, and that’s how he shows it.”
Or she’d say, “Do you know what would have happened to us if your father had been anything at all like his father? His father was a drunk. He couldn’t hold down a job. He couldn’t be depended on for anything. He found his father passed out on the neighbors’ front stoops, sometimes with piss in his pants, sawdust stuck to the piss. Do you hear what I’m saying? By his standards, your father’s being a very good father. He’s a provider. You never have to worry about any of those things. You have a room, a desk, a closet, toys and games and a baseball glove. You’re in Little League, you have a uniform, and shoes with cleats. You have a book bag and a winter coat. Your father had none of those things, do you understand? You have to understand where your father came from.”
Or she’d say, “When we moved out here, we thought all our money worries would be gone. Now they’re worse. We didn’t have debts in Brooklyn. We had no space, either, but we didn’t owe anyone a dime. Now we owe for the house, the furniture, the car, the new tires, the lawn mower, and just about everything under this roof. Sears is threatening to cancel his credit card, take away the oven, the mower. Two, three times a night they’re calling him. Now he gets threats about the car. If that happened, if they came for the car, he couldn’t even get to work. He’d have to ask for help. And he’s a proud man, your father, an honest man, but if he worked three more jobs, five more jobs, he still wouldn’t be able to make all our payments on time. Have you thought about how that must feel to a man like your father?”
Or she’d say, “Your father used to be Mr. Coney Island, for Christ’s sake, Mr. Suffolk County. He had a 29” waist and 17” arms. He looked like Steve Reeves in the Hercules movies. Compared to your father, Kirk Douglas in Spartacus looked out of shape. He used to run five miles every morning. He did sit-ups with a 25lb plate behind his head. Grown men, burly men, firemen, cops, anyone, they could punch him as hard as they could in the stomach, and he wouldn’t flinch. His stomach was so hard it hurt the puncher’s hand. He could have been in the Olympics. He could have been in the movies or on TV. He could do more push-ups than Jack LaLanne. When they had strong man contests down on the boardwalk, no one would enter. Now his belly hangs over his belt. He works, he sleeps, he eats, and eats, and eats. Can you imagine what getting fat is doing to your father?”
Or she’d say, “Your father was the handsomest guy in all of Brooklyn, did you know that? All of Queens, too. They knew him all the way to the City. If he was a vain man he could have been a model, a spokesman, the host of a show. He could have been in commercials and everyone would have bought the product-- he was that handsome, and even more charming. But you don’t know that, do you? When we moved out here, all the tramps on this block wanted to be my friend so they could get a look at your father. They’d see him out working in the yard with no shirt on; they’d run inside and put on bikinis. They’d ask him to pick them up in his arms. They’d ask to put their fingers on his biceps. They’d ask to take their pictures with him. They put their pictures with him in frames and they put the frames up on their TV sets. They’d ask him to come over when their husbands weren’t around. Could he fix a ceiling fan, a TV antenna, unclog a sink? They were shameless, married to shlemiels. Sometimes the husbands would get jealous; you could hear them screaming in the front yard. At parties, I couldn’t dance with him for five seconds without one of the other wives asking to cut in. Then a second one would cut in on the first, then a third on the second. They’d start fighting with each other like he was their husband, cursing, accusing, pulling hair. They threw drinks at each other, they forgot I was even there. They forgot I was the one who came with your father. Sometimes the shlemiels got so angry they’d forget who your father was; they’d try to fight your father. They were pathetic. He’d just pick them up and squeeze the air right out of them. They couldn’t move, couldn’t wriggle, couldn’t even breathe. Once one of them started crying and the next week moved his family back to Brooklyn. Now look at your father, all the worry and failure and fatigue in his sad face. Think what it must feel like, staring at that stranger in the mirror every morning, shaving his fat face.”
Or she’d say, “Your father was like the Pied Piper. The kids saw him, they gathered around in a swarm. Sometimes he couldn’t even pull a rake across a lawn there were so many kids. At his ankles, at his legs, trying to climb onto his shoulders. Uncle Rocky, they called him. Pick us up, Uncle Rocky. Throw us into the air and catch us. Make a muscle, lift a boulder, pull out a stump. Do clap hands push-ups, Uncle Rocky, with three of us on your back. Juggle the hammers, move the railroad ties, hold up the rear end of a car. When he walked to the school, they followed him like ducklings. Squealing and shouting and running around. They got jealous of each other, each wanted to be the one who got the most attention, and he always shared the attention. He made all of them feel special, he made all of them feel loved. Even the homely ones. Especially the homely ones. The dumb ones, the ones without money, the ones whose fathers had run away. The ones with holes in their socks, or no socks, and dirty faces and snot running out of both nostrils. He made the rejects feel like superstars. That’s what happened when people got around your father. They lit up. They felt better, they looked better, they became likeable. That’s what your father did for these people: suddenly the unlikeable ones were likeable. He was like a drug that way. When kids saw your father in the yard, they ran away from their yards, from their fathers, their mothers. They stopped their games, they put down their lunches, they stopped everything to spend time with your father. He walked down the street, he attracted more kids than a Good Humor truck. And now you won’t even look at him, talk to him, stay in the same room with him. Can you imagine what it feels like for your father to know that you won’t even help him for half an hour on a Saturday? Can you imagine what it feels like when you actually do help, standing around all mopey and sullen, and you won’t even talk, never smile, never laugh, you answer questions with one syllable if he’s lucky, look at your watch, begrudge begrudge begrudge. Can you imagine what it must look like in front of all those other parents, and all those other kids, when the man who the kids loved the most is utterly rejected by his own kids? You have to understand your father.
You have to understand your father.
You have to understand your father.”
And you know what I say?
I say, “No I don’t.”
I say, “You married him, you understand him.”
I say, “I don’t give a fuck about the Great Depression. I don’t give a fuck about the Marines. I don't give a fuck about his drunk father or his money troubles or his fat face or his failed physique.”
And she says, “You know who you sound like? Right now? You know exactly who you sound like?”
Tim Tomlinson is co-founder of New York Writers Workshop and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. Recent stories and poems appear in The Blue Lyra Review, Caribbean Vistas, Coachella Review, Silliman Journal (Philippines), Soundings Review, and the anthologies Long Island Noir (Akashic Books) and Fast Food Fiction (Anvil Publishing, Philippines). He is the fiction editor for Ducts and a Master Teacher of Writing at New York University’s Global Liberal Studies program.