January 23, 2012
I went over to the house for Thanksgiving. It was just me and Dad but Forceps Baby joined us halfway through dinner. After that it was all I could do to try and steer the conversation away from the Catholic Church, gay marriage, Dad’s construction jobs, tales from the police force, and GK Chesterton. Dad was on a GK Chesterton kick, reading his entire collection and joining a discussion group and everything. And then I heard some stories I’d never heard before.
When Dad was a kid, he and his friends ran into another group of kids at the beach, holding a cat by the hind legs. They soaked it in gasoline and set it on fire. As soon as it started to screech they Frisbeed it out over the water. It hissed when it made contact and sunk beneath the waves. Wow. And this was definitely these other kids doing this and not you and your friends, I asked?
“No, it was definitely this other group,” Dad said. “But we hung around to watch because we thought it was interesting.” Then he cackled. Well. I certainly didn’t have to wonder where I got my sadistic side from. Then again, I never put animals on the train tracks either. He once balanced a turtle on the rail, laughing as he recalled its legs swimming pointlessly in midair until the locomotive came.
Some might say boys will be boys. One of my friends blew up frogs in his backyard with M80s. Another boy at school infamously stuffed his neighbor’s dog in a trash can and rolled it down a hill. I knew another kid who’d sneak over at night and put dead squirrels on top his friend’s air conditioner. When they were kids, Uncle Chuck yelled for Dad to come over and look at an eel in the water (again at the beach). Except it wasn’t an eel but a long snakelike shit that Chuck had squeezed out. But the stuff Dad told me was worse than that.
Meanwhile, back at the dinner table I was getting tired of all the religion talk. I offered Forceps Baby some of the champagne I’d brought but he said he only drank Mass wine. I was feeling particularly irreverent so I said, “I’ll bless it for you.” I made the sign of the cross over the bottle and said, “Here’s the blood of Christ – drink up!” Dad told me not to be blasphemous. Hey, I couldn’t help it. Afterwards I learned that Forceps Baby had been in AA for a few years. Whoops.
After dinner we went upstairs to watch March of the Wooden Soldiers, our annual tradition. Dad and I watched it every Thanksgiving afternoon when I was growing up, after spending the morning watching the parade while eating pancakes and playing Monopoly. I missed those days, so after I moved out I’d bring the DVD over whenever I went for Thanksgiving. Try as I might, it never felt like old times again.
When we were safely ensconced in his room, Dad told me stories about Forceps Baby. He’d asked him to rake up all the leaves and dump them in the woods across the street. But instead of spreading them out flat among the trees, he just made a big pile at the curb. Forceps Baby told him that he didn’t have the strength to carry them all the way into the woods. “Sure you do,” Dad said. “I had no problem doing it last year, and you’re a bigger and stronger guy than I am.” But Forceps Baby is no good at following instructions, which Dad says is why he’s never held a job for longer than six months.
“You know, after living with someone for an extended period of time, you start to realize they’re not working with a full deck,” Dad said without a trace of irony.
I went back there for Christmas dinner, and not only did Forceps Baby join us again but there was yet another boarder staying at the house. He was a friend of Forceps Baby, an old guy named Jake. He’d inadvertently set his apartment on fire so he needed a place to stay. The old homestead was turning into a halfway house for nitwits. And what followed was the most disgusting dinner I’d ever had in my life.
Jake sat directly across from me, both nostrils leaking down over his upper lip and into his mouth. Every thirty seconds he stopped eating to emit horrible, phlegm-rattling coughs. If that wasn’t bad enough, he sneezed at the exact moment he took a draw from his oxygen tank. I saw snot and spit explode all over the inside of the oxygen mask. My utensils fell with a clatter onto my plate and I pushed it away. I was done eating. Dad asked me if I wanted any more yams. No sir – especially after I saw a big chunk of food fly off his lips and land in the dish he was gesturing to.
Dad was upset that Mom didn’t come for dinner, because he really thought she was going to. “Why?” I asked. “She told me she wasn’t coming, and she said she told you no as well.”
“She said, ‘I can’t promise anything,’ which sounds like ‘maybe’ to me.”
“Well, somebody ain’t telling the truth, then,” I said.
Dad sighed. “Maybe someday she’ll forgive me.”
It’s not about forgiveness. It’s about acting like a normal person. Maybe if he stopped showing up unannounced at people’s houses, ranting about things that happened ten years ago, or leaving notes and shit on cars in the middle of the night, then they might talk to him. But I held my tongue and tried not to spoil what was left of the evening. I didn’t have the stomach for confrontation.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have a choice a few days later. I was leaving my mother’s house when I saw his car parked in the nearby intersection. He was staking out the joint. I went around the block to come back and confront him, but he was gone. I’d spooked him off. No matter. I knew he’d return. I went back to the house to wait, and sure enough a half-hour later I saw his car parked at the other end of the block. As soon as he saw me get into my car he disappeared around the corner. I raced to catch up, but he was really hauling ass and I lost him.
Now I was reluctant to leave the house at all. He was clearly laying in wait to do something. I wondered whether he was going to try something crazy like breaking in. I waited a couple of hours, and when I finally left I took a cruise around the whole neighborhood to see if he was hiding anywhere. Dad was nowhere in sight, so I went over to his house instead. His car was in the driveway so let myself in and marched right upstairs.
Dad was on the phone in his office. “Well, you can charge me any kind of fee you want, but I already told you I’m going to pay it…” I heard him snap. “Sir, the conversation is over, so happy New Year to you and goodbye now.” He bashed the phone down just as I appeared in the doorway. Without any preamble I looked him square in the eye and asked, “So what was with all that bullshit this morning?”
“What bullshit?” Dad returned nastily, feigning ignorance. I stared at him until he finally responded that he was “having breakfast.” Huh? “Yeah. Sometimes I have it in my car… you know, sometimes I even have in my truck as well, in different places. You have a problem with that?”
“Oh, right, you were having breakfast. And yeah I’ve got a problem with that.”
“Well, too bad,” he spat, and embarked on a long, wild-eyed rant, telling me that he didn’t have to explain anything to me. Everybody hates him, nobody wants to forgive him, so much for being a “Catholic” family, and he’s parked at the corner so he can catch glimpses of people who won’t come to see him, but he still loves them and wants to see them. Oh, but it’s not okay to show at Shannon’s house unannounced. “She told me to never darken her doorstep ever again. And apparently it’s not okay to show up at the practice hall and tell Patrick to go see his grandmother before she’s dead.” Then he complained that Kathleen is always showing him pictures from family gatherings. “But, oh, we can’t invite Dad because he’s such a scumbag,” Dad fumed, fluttering his hands in the air.
He went on for several minutes until lapsing into silence. Dad slumped back in his chair, setting his jaw and looking like he was about to cry. Then he asked me if I had anything to say. “No,” I managed, only because I didn’t know where to start. It was very hard to think when he came at you like that. I could feel my pulse pounding in my temples and eardrums and my heart was throwing itself violently against my ribcage.
“Well, you came over here for something… to confront me, I guess. So what is it? Do you want to give me a warning?” he jeered. I didn’t give him a warning, but I did suggest that he change his behavior. That only set him off further. He told me that I was exactly like Grandpa said – I have a smart mouth and a problem with showing respect. I felt like telling him that respect is a two-way street; it’s not automatic, it’s earned. But I didn’t say that. I thought it best to let him blow off his head of steam and maybe he’d calm down.
And then he accused me of trying to turn people against him. Huh?? What the hell? Well, we both knew this guy Ernie from the pro-life movement, and I once told him that Dad gets along better with strangers than his own family. “So thank you for that!” he barked at me. Oh yeah, like I was making that up. It wasn’t exactly a secret either, considering Dad often relayed tales of family strife – like throwing oil around Johnny’s room – to people we met at right-to-life events. Meanwhile, I hadn’t seen Ernie for two or three years. In typical Dad fashion, it was a such a sore point yet he waited all that time before mentioning it.
I finally spoke up and told him to stop with the “creepy ex-boyfriend stalker type shit.” Like what? he demanded. Like leaving notes on people’s cars. First he asked what notes, then said so what, and then claimed it was supposed to be cute. “Cute to you, maybe. You know what, I think I’ll just come back and talk to you once you learn how to act and communicate like a normal person.” That’s when he completely exploded.
“WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? DON’T COME INTO MY HOUSE AND TELL ME HOW TO LIVE MY LIFE. I’LL DO WHAT I WANT. I’LL PARK IN FRONT OF THE HOUSE OR KNOCK ON THE DOOR IF I WANT TO.” Then he told me to get out, offended by my audacity to mouth off to him. He spun around in his chair until I saw nothing but his back, and he yelled at me again to leave. Before I did I told him to continue on the way he’s doing (“THANK YOU, I WILL”), to believe whatever he wants to believe, and that I was done with his nonsense.
What a way to start off the new year.
Then I got a tip-off from Patrick. He was doing searches for his title company and discovered there were some big liens against Dad’s house. One was for unpaid hospital bills for Grandma. Another was for a whopping $14,000 for unpaid income tax from ten years earlier. Then he found judgments for more unpaid hospital and ambulance bills, and another for failure to carry workers compensation insurance. But the most problematic was lien placed on the house for failure to pay property tax.
Well, he tried to pay but they wouldn’t accept it because it was a day late and they’re really strict. So the county took over the house and it was to be auctioned off in March. All over a matter of 600 dollars. I called the tax assessor’s office to get more information. Mom’s name was still on the deed and I wanted to know if she was liable for anything. The woman at the office told me that Dad was in there yelling about the government and swearing that he wasn’t going to pay, and that either he’ll be dead or he’ll burn the house to the ground first.
Well. Okay then, I said. Can this situation be rectified? Yes, the woman told me, but there was process to follow and a packet of papers to fill out, which Dad hadn’t done yet. I thanked her for the information and hung up.
It seemed like it was time to visit the house again. I conducted a secret ninja mission early in the morning after Dad left to attend the March for Life in DC. I had to be extra careful on the creaky old stairs. Garbageman, Forceps Baby and Jake were all asleep in their respective rooms, and I didn’t want any of them to discover me and tell Dad.
I rifled through as many papers as I could without disrupting things in his office. Then I found a file on Kathleen in one of his cabinets. He had copies of her bank statements, gym memberships, resumes, phone numbers and addresses of her friends and associates, post-it notes he fished out of the garbage, canceled checks from the joint account she had with an ex-boyfriends from 15 years ago… He must have been snooping and collecting this stuff for decades. I shoved it all back into the folder, completely disgusted.
I could only imagine what was in my file, but I didn’t get the chance to look for it. There was movement downstairs. Shit. One of the guys was up and about. I couldn’t risk sneaking back down, so I opened the office window and trotted along the edge of the roof. There was a medium-sized tree growing at the corner of the house, and I had to jump about six feet to latch myself onto the trunk. I nearly cracked a rib in the process, but I shimmied down, cut through a gap in the hedges and ran across two neighboring yards until I got to my car down the block. Then I headed home, wondering what was going to happen next.