Although it seems impossible to fathom, my son the artist is twenty-five this Saturday. Yesterday I spent the entire evening looking through slides and photographs of him I that I captured during his childhood.
My girlfriend found among one of many disregarded boxes a priceless collection of his penciled sketches, made so long ago that I was perhaps maybe two or three years older than he is now.
As I sifted through them with delicate hands I felt the clenching tears that only the passage of time can be responsible for grow up from the rear of my throat, accompanying the recollection of his careful hours drawing trees at the dining room table, my first wife, in her youth before the crisis, a silhouetted goddess in front of the sliding glass doors that opened to a deck, pacing- a world of nervous energy present in her steps.
He still draws his trees. I see in the many of those trees of his youth that so easily captured his attention. I remember their evolution from blocked trunks and limbs of a single color to slowly emerging living creations of wood and foliage that could grow and bare fruit on their own, or hold upon their boughs strings of Christmas lights among tinsel garland and menagerie decorations.
In a random box I found a favorite photograph taken at West Beach on a day of sailing, a blow up of Alexander sprawled out in a black inner tube with a faded plastic beach pail on his head, the cheap white handle tucked under his chin, his smile- a conflict of blue eyes, purple lips, and shining teeth.
The photograph, encased in a heavy silver frame, sat like a solid memory with a face staring back at me, a memory of that day, like so many others, spent on the water.
On the back in hurried script read the words: Alexander Dean Hayes age 11. The blue ink faded but somehow not indented into the soft thick paper which so often relents to the pressured nib of a heavy handed writer.
It occurred to me to question, and I couldn’t at first remember, whose handwriting was it that had so carefully engraved the inscription, rolling, and not digging the ink across the paper?
Not until I had already dialed the number to my former wife’s house did I realize that it had to have been me, she and I were divorced by Alex’s eleventh birthday, and until a year ago- brought back to amicable terms by nothing short of an act of the gods- were on harsh terms.
She answered the telephone and it was her hello: the hilling up-down slope of her greeting that brought me out of my remote state of thought. Having no further reason to talk I still did not hang up the telephone, fearful of what she might interpret with the glint of my number on her caller ID, from calling and hanging up.
Instead I feigned clumsiness, pretending to have pressed the wrong button on my speed dial.
Beverly,” I asked in my most unexpected to hear your voice tone, “is Alex there?”
“No. He’s probably at home.” Her voice reeked of curiosity. I knew her well enough to know she laid it on to mask her relish of my unexpected calling- of which I try to avoid.
“When will he be back Bev, I need to talk to him.”
“Phillip,” she was buying it, I could tell, “this is my house, not our Sons.”
She always says “our Sons” when she wants to remind me of our conjugal bed, suggestively pronouncing images to mind of what she- for some reason I fail to understand- believes to be happier days.
I played it out, searching for a note upon which to end. “Oh shit
Beverly, I hit the wrong number on my speed dial, his is three yours is four. Jeesh I’m so clumsy.”
I sensed as I emptied the conversation of voice that she was waiting for me to say more. The disguise of my detachment and lack of interest in her had worked, but now I chanced, “Is everything all right with you Beverly.”
I could see, from the reflection in the mirror above the bookshelf, the disapproval of this, on my girlfriend Angela’s face. It was a cowl that told me she didn’t like the attention I was awarding to a person who was to her (though she would never admit it) a presumptively supposed predator invading the nest.
She stood and made her way down the hallway to my left and entered the bathroom, her upside-down heart-shaped ass undulating with youth. I knew it was in my best interests to conclude what was already a big mistake.
“Phillip I’ve been wanting to talk to you anyways, I’m glad you called.” Her voice was shaky. She, the drama queen, went on, “I want us all to be together for the celebration of Alex’s new collection. It would be a shame if we didn’t all celebrate together as a family because we want to avoid each other.”
What? I thought. A family! What is this bitch talking about, “Bev I don’t want to avoid you, that’s absurd. But listen,” I changed to a hurried distracted tone, “something just came up, I have to go. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Hanging up the receiver I called out to Angela, seeking her, looking forward to the post-argumentative physical conversation that was forthcoming.
Yesterday- organizing another mess, this time at the desk in my den- I was shuffling through folders and files, remembering months back when I wrote the material contained therein: Magazine articles I intended to use but didn’t, query letters I never sent, and the happenings that inspired their genesis. A writer’s work is never done.
I like to set my work down to ferment, to germinate, and then look back on it after the idea is old. It puts the work into perspective. Most of it was useless manuscripts. I need a computer.
In the heaping desk drawer of material I would probably never use I found a letter my Son wrote to me, weeks back.
I rarely return letters, preferring always to reply with the immediacy of the telephone. Letters lack the synchronization of the moment; Thoughts are lost- even on paper- while journeying from post office to post office. Patience is not my virtue.
My Son always resorts to Dickensian prose in his letters; as if he’s suddenly been consumed by the ghost of epic novels past and is unable to convey himself as anything other than the Victor Hugo of the nineties. Always in his letters I find an impressive collage of psychobabble and expression. He tends to drink too much coffee- a habit he no doubt inherited from his father- nevertheless he has a sharp pen.
An artist must keep a steady hand and it surprises me, considering his caffeine consumption, that his lines are so clean and defined. Much of his work is landscape: rivers, and always trees. Some still life. In his coffee hurried mind he seizes upon paper the unmovable permanence of life. He and nature are lovers.
He once said to me with a grin, upon my asking why he didn’t buy his girlfriend flowers for Valentines Day, “A cut flower is a murdered flower Dad!” He did better. He painted her a bouquet of amethyst and ultramarine colored roses. I would have bought her a potted plant.
One winter, when my son was probably seven or eight, his mother and I took him sledding at Riverview Park inLake
Station. Highway 51 was a single solid milky sheet of ice, like oiled glass. My old Ford, now long retired to memory, edging along at a slow speed, the wheel gripped in my nervous hands.
The hill, upon which sat a stout water tower, obese in it’s winter coat, was as iced as the highway. On the water tower was the bold proclamation: Lake Station’s Riverview Park.
Activity covered the great white mound everywhere and we took our turns on plastic sleds and also an inner tube which bore two obliging handles on either side. It doubled as a winter sled toy, and a water chariot, to be towed behind in the wake of our speedboat, purchased newly that previous summer. Such were the times.
My Alex, in the spirit of his indestructible youth, with his plastic red and white blue sled following behind him wobbled up the far side (the steepest) of the hill where the older groups of children congregated- His puffy red snowsuit contrasting with the snow. There in the bosom of winter’s splendor, snow falling down from gray depths of altitude, they gambled their healthy lives on the steep incline that cruelly ended in an enormous ice ramp, appropriately named skull end.
His descent was spectacular and brave, but the inner tube, so light- making the vehicle top-heavy- kept him much too awkward while off the ground. Unable to maintain his balance, it leapt from beneath him as if it were trying to get away on its own, and his landing was an audible thud of precious flesh encased in snowsuit.
Alex’s weight was distributed almost entirely on his little wrist but we were unable to see, for a rise in front of the snow compacted landing strip prevented us a vantage. Evidence of his proud courage fell from his eyes in ribbons over red cheeks; his arm cradled as he rose we met him- terrified parents we were- and he spoke correctly, “my arm’s broke.”
We rushed him to the Emergency Room at Hobart Mercy and I, in a fit of Fatherly rage- and in desperate need for an outlet into which I could vent- rushed home, the Ford engine sputtering to keep pace as I urged it on into more dangerous speeds over icy roads, to retrieve my ax.
I destroyed the ice ramp atRiverview
Park. My anger and strength took the handle in its grasp, heavy strokes with my shoulders burning I chipped and chunked it to pieces for the sin of suffering my Son his injury.
My ignorance at mortality had rendered my Son the proud wearer of a plastic cast, and all his friends gave signatures of their assenting approval like a boy in an Indian tribe making a rite of passage.
I remember the image of my wife, so ironically a nurse, holding him in her lap deep in the passenger seat. In his lap my leather coat kept the snow his arm was encased in- to keep the swelling to a minimum- from sweating all over the interior of the car.
My Son, the brave little rascal, was silently enduring the pain but moaning and ouching in accompaniment to every bump in the road. His healthy arm around his Mother’s neck.
In the ER, when I returned form laying waste to the ice ramp, he sat on his mother’s knee; she was bouncing him, a boy already too large for his age. I wiped his runny nose and he asked, “Now can we go to Burger King?”
I spent the morning in a coffee shop literally braining myself with the thick black fluid. On the walk back to my loft I slipped on a patch of ice- my foot as lubricated by phased changed water as my mind was by caffeine and bruised my hip. There’s a blotch of coagulated blood, deep purple and brown and the size of a tea saucer just below the surface of my skin.
My body is constantly reminding me of my age; never did I feel this way as a young man. Pride comes before the fall. Sophocles said those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. I always thought it should end “they first make proud.” In my mind I retreat toward the comfort in knowing that I am still not yet on the gods “to be destroyed list” yet- I still function within the borders of reality. But my pride, my pride is in full attendance, and I await a greater fall that will bruise more than my hip.
Of course my nightly trips to the bathroom have increased over the years; I continually remind myself each night as I piss, grumbling over the toilet that it’s a result of the coffee habit- sweet ambrosia- that I have acquired. Then though there is my salt and peppered gray hair, a distinction of genes I think and not so much as age, certainly not proof that my bones are any weaker than they were last year.
My hair is not much different from my late Fathers. The “Hayes looks” as so many ghosts of now long forgotten mistresses have designated them.
My Father and I were never close; he never really reached for me. There have been times in my life when I regretted the rift that grew between us. Always I resented the person he was because it was the person I so feared becoming, and so it was at an early age that I generated repulsion at him- all teeth and claws- and hated how easy it was for him to neglect his family. The sins of the father will be visited on the son.
He traded us for booze and broads. My Mother, delicate as fresh snowflakes, despaired and at times to such an extent that the sight of her overwhelmed my boy heart- growing to support the weight of man’s misery. For so long I was a risen hand in the depths of melancholy anger.
My old man’s tallness and dark features made him predatory among women, but he carried about him the sickening stench of a man rotting from the inside out. It permeated his clothes and standing next to him his failure was trophied by the odor of whiskey- his defeat he omitted through his greasy skin- and his eyes, the blue steel of arctic winter, the only gift he bestowed upon his children.
I used to daydream of murdering him as he lay under one of the many half-gutted cars that stuffed our property with their decadence. It attracted me, how easy it would be to jostle the jack- only a latch, just a latch kept it in place- out of place with a violent blow, perhaps a kick from my shoed foot, sending the rusty metal and engine crashing down on his hateful flesh and bones.
But his death was far away. It came later after years of soaking his soul in cheap bourbon and beer.
From my father I learned an aversion to all that is poverty. He took from me, so unlike what a father is supposed to do, my innocence that could have believed all destiny to be intentionally distributed by a being greater than ourselves. For who could do such a thing- that there could be such intentional sadness in store for the innocent?
He drank himself dead one day, before we could reconcile. At his funeral I was not alone, all his children were there, had gathered in forgiveness and the strength of mutual assent to our past. I cried thirty years of tears every time I was alone for the next two years. Not because I wished that he could have been better, but because I wished he could have known what a good son I wanted him to see me as. His death was a lesson to me, in his death I learned that life’s only promise is to end.
Driving home on Lake Shore Drive one night, the lights from oncoming traffic reminded me of approaching ghosts and I wondered where his ghost haunts. What child fears the booing of his drunken ghost?
I realized then that he was a ghost before he died- that all he could now haunt is the past in memory of his son’s deep heart, a past that slurred by him. That he had spent all that was good of himself on the abscess of being.
It was then that I openly accused him of being a hallow entity that could be filled only by its own passage. And I wondered why my pattern of thinking was so inversely different from my fathers, what was it that made me so removed from his behavior. Was it the hatred; this resentment; this heartfelt betrayal that prevented me from walking the same path that had daunted my youth. His convictions that life was a cruel relentless endless repetition, bound to determine the undetermined. A creation of an inevitable end? And he hated it. His fury came from deep within, but it rarely showed in public, only when he was butt-fucking his whores or beating his wife and kids. It was then that anger found him. Otherwise he was just a drunk.
I had in my mind the week that began the second semester of my freshman year. His drunken raging fists searching for the relenting submissiveness of a boy not yet even half his weight, thinned by an impoverished endurance. He wore a leather belt that left strap marks across the back of innocence.
People knew that he was lazy, and that we were poor. They knew that my old man was a drunk who spent his money on booze rather than feed and clothe his kids, and no doubt they expected him to be abusive, but they never saw it. They never knew how bad it really was. Or if they did they turned their heads- embarrassed, afraid to interfere.
And I became angry at myself for having these memories. In the rearview mirror I saw myself crying abjectly to the empty car and felt the lights of oncoming head beams magnified in my eyes by the wetness of tears. I knew the obviousness of life’s cruelty, had felt its lowest common denominator.
In these memories I could no longer find a place for myself, so I left them there on Lake Shore Drive to do as they will. They fled to wherever bad dreams go upon awakening.
When Alex was growing up we would spend the summer months sailing on Lake Michigan, sailing far beyond the shores. Alex would cry and seek comfort in his mother’s arms. I saw his fears of the emptiness of water surrounded only by horizons on all sides.
He said he was afraid of monsters that live in the water, but it was I who was the monster for taking him out against his will. I wanted him to brave his fears. Still I wonder if he ever did, even later as an early teen on speed boats racing and roaring he seemed reclusive- bound by a tension I felt him too young to know.
He took the wheel on several occasions at my urging and seemed when he was in control to be more at ease. He found relief when donning the mask of command, but he could never place his absolute trust in anyone else’s navigation of the vessel. Often I looked over to him, “Are you okay squirt?”
“Sure Dad,” he would smile up, shivering with purple lips divided by the white teeth of a healthy youth- eyes framed by my sunglasses much too large for his small noggin. His childhood kingdom forever. Immortal in my mind.
There was a sadness of his youth he carried, perhaps on the pages in one of his many portfolios, into his adult years. Probably he inherited such baggage from me. His art, today, he says reflects the pain of self-inflicted seclusion.
I think there were times, after the divorce, where he felt tossed between his mother and I; to such an extent that he withdrew into himself rather than suffer confusion. His defense another mask.
I remember the paranoia, the utter and absolute terror that accompany the thought of losing him after the divorce was finalized.
The painted picture of that summer was ingrained deeper in my mind not only because of what was happening emotionally in the life of myself and my family but also because of the many storms on the lake; as if the weather was responsive to heart breaking. It cried for me and my son, for whom I wished, and still do, that I could have suffered for, rather than him feel the loss of a complete parental unit. I could not spare him his pain.
Like a madman I continued on with my life for some months after the initial loss of Alex. I felt each moment passing with the clarity and precision from which my senses could find no escape.
In the passing of a minute, the passing of a second without being near him was a criminal act of theft I blamed on his mother. To phrase ‘et tu Brute,’ her image draws to mind alone, my world was empty without my son. Taken were the memories of birthdays, Christmases, and all the others I longed for that a son must have with his father.
I knew that he would one day seek a father’s approval- that he would, without me, not be able to find it because all boys seek approval of their fathers. And I learned from the demon that was my father that if a boy doesn’t obtain that approval- if he doesn’t find it inside of himself only what a father can give him through direction and instruction- than he will search for it elsewhere. That he will look toward someone who won’t see through the eyes of a son’s father, and he will remain forever lost and his questions that surface from within will go unanswered.
The ten years I was absentee from his life were a collection of earthquake misdeeds at the hand of my ex-wife.
I screamed across an expanse of time, empty is what my life had become, and searched places for what was no longer accessible to me and could exist only in the dreams that tormented, and kept me from a temporary escape in sleep.
I was incapable of being a presence in my son’s life; his mother had made that decision for me.
My son and I walked to a wedding reception six blocks from my Bucktown loft. As we stepped along the odor of petroleum exhaust and our cigarette smoke wafted by my nostrils. He told me of a new project that he was preparing for exhibit.
He always amazes me, his creativity. Someone once said to me there are two types of people: creative, and organized. I always wonder if I could create art to the extent which he does even though I’m obsessively organized.
He rambled on, chain smoking a white Styrofoam cup of coffee in his black leather gloved hand, he passed it to me and I accepted. Those kinds of moments are my favorite. I neglect no opportunity to make a memory with my son. We both drank too much scotch. My girlfriend arrived by taxi- fashionably late.
My ex-wife was also present, accompanied by her unusually plain boyfriend- my son and I refer to him as the “poor son of a bitch”- a majordomo for some religious coalition. She was hypocritically drunk and her verbosity rose with the level of alcohol she consumed. Alex played the referee from across the table after the final blow she attempted to strike fell short- launched by a feeble alcohol soaked tongue.
She accused me of being a social climber, in want of reminding me of my humble parentage. My son, the ever faithful to his father, expressed to her that he knew how I felt. Her frustration, her resentment, her wounded pride- there was no shelter, no sanctuary for it to keep from obvious view. Her defeat. We saw her there as she realized she lost the way before the journey had even begun.
The music from the speakers made shouting necessary, and it was suggestive of a new sexuality inherited from the contributions of generations past. There were dozens of girls on the dance floor. All those boozed young bodies primed to fuck. Their dressed down appearances of tight pink fabrics advertising pheromones of perky muscular buttocks and upturned tits lit candles in the eyes of the room. Alex was sweating on the dance floor, he seemed to know many of the ladies, and they took turns flirting in orbit. I would have been out there playing the part of a young at heart dad had not my girlfriend appeared when she did looking fresh in her late arrival, invoking in me a sense of momentary guilt for my wandering eyes.
I took her home and we played doctor. I noticed after our lovemaking that the room was filled with her radiance. I looked up from her face to the outside window, and she pushed me up next to me. I knew that I loved this woman, a question that frequented my mind.
She rolled over on top of me then, having become bored with my preoccupied distance. She looked into my eyes- held the stare. Her brown eyes intent upon some worried thought, her brown hair fell in curls. Diamond rivulets of sweat streamed down her face glancing past one another.
“Marry me Phillip.” Her voice was one of a woman who knew she was taking a risk. After a long pause she added, “Please.”
I leaned over, her hips accommodated so that I could reach the pack of cigarettes on the bookshelf next to the bed. I checked the dial of my watch next to them to stall. I lit a cigarette.
She sighed and stood up off me on the bed, over me, feet on either side of my head. Her sex darkened by shadows, dark pubis pasted on smooth Mediterranean skin. She hopped off of the bed and made way to the ashtray, walking around the other side of the bed. She crawled in, put the ashtray on my stomach and her arm around my neck.
She licked my ear. Slowly.
“Phillip,” she cooed. Soft warm breath on my skin.
I remained silent.
She was a good girl, and it was easy for me to enjoy being with her. She in her own ways, pleased by the slightest gesture- though high maintenance- appreciated and provided of herself at the same time.
I avoided her surging attempts many times before. “I am good to you baby,” she said to me, knowing I must respond in affirmation to such a statement.
Surely she did not expect me to commit myself there, at that moment.
“Philip you’re ignoring
me.” She persisted.
“No I’m not kitten, I heard you. I was just thinking about tonight, about how long it’s been since we’ve been dancing.”
“I know baby.” She licked my face. Long and deliberate. She was playing games, sprayed with the scent that is a woman with a plan.
I smoked, let my hand drop to the ashtray. The music in our ears was lulling, it was late.
I avoided her nudges toward marriage for so long it seemed natural. Not even I really knew what was going on in my head- how could she, I thought, be so certain that she wanted this.
My life, in the moments of our relationship, flashed by me- I was not tense when I answered. It was not an impulsive act. She seemed not to hear me when I answered; as if it was the only possible outcome for this perfect night. Destiny. As if she were sure it would happen, like something that happens every day; the rising of the sun perhaps.