When Fatherhood Goes Bad
by Terese Svoboda
A real bonfire. A log, two logs, three, not kindling, a blaze roaring over the water lapping the pier, a place of red eyes in the dark, and crashing flaming collapse.
Men who are willing to think themselves boys stand around as if the fire can fix them, their hands hanging confused without unbent hangers skewered with marshmallow, and the men crying. Men like him, haggard with stuff men don’t want other men to know about.
Robocop, the obvious name for the guy weeping beside him, hammer fists tight with the tattoo of a snake coiled over knuckles triple-sized because he can’t help but pop them – Robocop grim-smiles but the tears rolling across his lips make him look half-drowned. Mom, he screams and pops those knuckles.
So what, he’s screaming too, he’s crying.
Third hour, maybe 1:30 a.m., the facilitator hands out sodas. A lot of the guys have acted out, he’s seen bludgeoning: log against log, plenty of pretend sex-throttled agony, one guy off in the dark tearing his clothes to shreds, screaming Too late.
A note in his head goes off with that particular scream. Instead of putting the vision of his parents’ friend, Mr. Roeser, the radio announcer-newspaper photographer and all around Eagle Scout pressing him hard against the wall, his hand on his back so he can’t move and his other hand unzipping over and over, the pingpong ball bouncing in the background, a TV cartoon trying to end – instead of that, the primary reason his shrink says Go to this weird bonfire event, he imagines his brother taunting him la-la-la as if he knows about Roeser, using that la-la-la to inform his father that he thinks he’s of another persuasion because he said No to their deal, and a particularly red thick log rolls in the fire in front of him. It’s not too late. He heaves that log out of the ashes, burning his hands, and throws it, sizzling, into the waves.
The deal his brother and his father wanted him to be part of, the crops grown and sold so as to screw his sisters out of their share and keep all government money is what he’d said No to, it’s wrong and I’m not going to do it. Your honor, he said to his dad who was once a judge and knew which way the loopholes looped. His brother laughed and his dad frowned, and said It’s not too late, but when he didn’t retract what he’d just said with Sorry, his dad pushed him away, the pressure of his touch just like Roeser’s against the wall, a man who had a drink with Dad and Mom nearly every week – Hi, guys.
Robocop catches him spitting into his blistered hands like somebody with asbestos fingers. He’s trying to wrestle another burning log, and Robocop helps him maneuver the unburnt end of it into the ocean, cursing and crying. They pummel the sand afterwards, then he and Robocop and five others take the rest of the bonfire apart and call it quits.
He fills with happiness when the car starts the way a car might not after sitting in the sand all those dark damp hours. Starts right up.
He is driving Dad home those many years ago, even before the deal, with a little detour past his very-own-bought-just-this-year field. Or is it an accident, a path that Dad would have avoided had he been driving? He looks out on the bent dry cornstalks, the first ones he grew all by himself instead of going to art school. Put that money you saved up into the ground and it’ll come right up again bigger, said Dad, when he was in high goad-mode.
What does he see in amongst those cornstalks now? Cattle, devouring them. He slows, the dust catches up, the cattle wander off. I didn’t rent that out, he says. Did they jump the fence from your place?
Dad is smiling. He says, smiling, those are McCormick’s cows.
They’re just about past the field, he could just forget what he saw, he could just drive on. Well, what are McCormick’s cows doing eating my forage?
I made the deal, says Dad. I keep the money.
He’s so shocked he doesn’t stop, he keeps on driving down that dusty unpaved road, the hot late sun at the end of it. They’re another two miles before Dad says: You’re a young farmer. You’ve got a lot to learn.
That year’s revenues he didn’t plant, they went straight to tuition.
The very same night when he gets home from the fires, shaking sand all over the foyer, leaving his sandy shoes under the bench and tiptoeing into the kitchen, he still has something else he has to do. Unfortunate scheduling but he’d already paid the money on both. He smells smoke and checks the kitchen where his worried wife waits, who whispers How’d it go? That’s when he realizes the smoke is himself, he stinks of it, but nonetheless gives her a kiss and goes to shower, puts on unguent, and finds a change of clothes. It’s now 3 a.m.
Still damp, he enters his daughter’s bedroom. This time of night she’s usually at the junior high parking lot checking out porn online or perusing the dark web because they’ve blocked her, the junior high providing reception for the very poor or, in her case, the deprived recalcitrant defiant adolescent she has grown into. Now she lies in bed with her eyes closed, Sleeping Beauty at seventeen, and not the witch earlier, snarling because he caught her getting a picture of his credit card while he was on the phone and had to change the number before he left. Thank god her friends cavorted in her room all day doing what? he wonders, and wore her out. Maybe. He can’t tell if she’s really asleep.
He stands there for a good ten minutes until he hears his wife answer the door downstairs, the clock fall off his younger daughter’s bureau in the next room, the couple they’d hired who cough just outside the bedroom door before they enter. The door opens, his younger daughter, night-clad, flits across the hall to the bathroom just as his wife and the couple burst into the elder’s room, and she sits up in bed.
I’m not a bad father, he says over her screaming. His wife tries to hold her daughter’s hand to calm her. She believes in touch like religion, being an acupuncturist, but her hand hits the clipboard out of the man’s grip after he announces: You’re going away, and she starts to sob.
His daughter’s out of bed quick, she’s says she’s going to the bathroom but not alone, oh no, the woman has to go with her. There are razors in there. This caution is what he paid all that money for. More tears – not his daughter’s mind you – but his, trying to stuff her backpack with t-shirts and socks. His wife stands frozen beside the bed. Get the fuck away, his daughter is yelling at the woman inside the bathroom.
I’m going to hold your arm behind your back while I walk you to the car, says the man just the way he said it so quietly in the sales room – really the shrink’s office – where they had come to the very very end of their rope, coiled at their feet the way they had found the knotted torn sheets left in front of the house one morning, her still stoned and drunk asprawl behind a bush where she’d fallen, stolen silver in her purse along with vomit.
He focuses on the word hold, which is what as a father he’d done: she was in his arms straight after her bloody birth, touching his silly-beard, the hip one. When she fell over a toy she’d wrenched from a playmate and cut her lip, he held her then too, he held her while the first shrink refused to take them on as a family, who said it was her problem, not theirs. Untrue, untrue was his response. They would get through it together. They had tried everything, so many more therapists, family groups, zoom meetings, and more and more often, legal actions. His wife had a mother who behaved the same way and ended up homeless. I’m crushed, says his wife, between my mother and my daughter. He adored his wife, a red-headed wisp of strong words and such a soft touch.
The man and the woman take his child away and drive to the wilderness where she will camp and survive. For three months. Nothing about them or their exit is left in his head by the time he and his wife go walking down the middle of the street to the shrubbery thin around the parking lot of the junior high where their steps stop, where they’d found her so often when she wasn’t returned home by police car, and they cry and hold each other, then part when their younger daughter says, hiding in her pjs in the shadow of the all-carved-up I love you tree at the end of the lot, I’m hungry.
How is it that these people we’re related to cause such chaos is not what he will say in the deposition he will give against his father the very next week.
His lawyer primes him to say only Yes or No. Would you care to elaborate is a trap.
Did your brother unduly influence your father to sign all these papers? asks the other side.
Yes, he says.
Did your father have dementia?
Yes, he says.
Would you care to elaborate?
My father had intermittent dementia.
They should have talked about his brother who is determined to take everything. He does say his brother had already taken his father’s home for himself and put him in assisted living and left him there over the holidays.
Then he stops. I don’t know he remembers his lawyer saying, an answer that makes you less responsible.
Roeser presses hard against him, silent, rubbing rubbing rubbing.
I don’t know, he says over and over.
What about this statue? asks his sister.
They have a very short time to choose who’s going to immortalize Dad. He left money to the library that has to put up whatever bronze they pick.
He mulls the bronze farmer, ball cap low, its bronze fingers gripping his thighs as if he is about to spring up and drive a tractor for ten hours.
Or these abstract ones? asks his sister, one I-beam balanced on another.
Out of art school now three decades, he knows how objects speak for themselves. I like the abstract because anybody can attribute anything to it, he says, but realism gives whoever the opportunity to go ugly and there Dad’ll be, for the whole town to see.
Bronze just the middle finger? Maybe we could have his face emerging from the bronze, half-smothered, just his nose and eyes, a compromise between abstract and figurative and dead.
Compromise, he says, is not an aesthetic solution.
Okay, shut your eyes and pick one.
He does. It’s one of the casserole artists, who favors features, he says, that resemble the rubble of cooked vegetables.
You don’t ever have to visit, she says. They can put it in a glass case and shove it behind the shelves like they did the founder’s.
In that case, let’s make it as big as possible – how much bulk can you get for $50,000? We’ll pour bronze down a wall through a lost wax mold and voila: a mess. Why not?
You’re the youngest, Dad adored you, she says. We were all jealous.
He breaks down and tells her about his cornstalks. She registers little surprise. The youngest wasn’t favored, that’s all I’m saying, he says. I guess I did what I liked under the cover of jealousy. Maybe we should pick something that turns green. How about making it in copper?
You’re forgiven, she says.
He opens his hands to see how the blisters are doing.
Terese Svoboda is the author of 18 books. She has won the Bobst Prize in fiction, the Iowa Prize for poetry, an NEH grant for translation, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation prize for video, the O. Henry award for the short story, a Bobst prize for the novel, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. She is a three time winner of the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and has been awarded Headlands, James Merrill, Hawthornden, Yaddo, McDowell, and Bellagio residencies.
Image: Joshua Newton/Unsplash