On June 9, 2012, I hosted a reading of six memoir and fiction writers at Santoro’s Bookstore in Seatte. My father is dying of Parkinson’s. One evening I was thinking about how at his funeral all the eulogies would be cleaned up, politically correct versions of the truth. Why couldn’t someone tell a real story, I thought, about this difficult man’s life, just one real story? It wouldn’t even have to be a particularly bad story. As a former journalist and current novelist, I am passionate about truth. So, I decided I’d use my portion of the Santoro reading to do a eulogy. I’d use a scene from my novel to tell one real story about my father. This is his eulogy.
Dinner time. A white pile of Wonder Bread. Thick bloody steaks. Mashed potatoes, gravy. Green Beans. Cole slaw. On the counter, the Wonder Bread wrapper, the red, blue and yellow colored circles a sign to Mother of progress, of a better life. Despite the store-bought food, we still mostly ingested the land. The earth lodged beneath our fingernails, dissolved in our gullets, purged in our shit.
It was autumn. Billowing curtains, empty echoes. Outside the window, a skinned deer hung from the old oak. It was deer season.
Father said, without looking up: “You got your head too much in books.” I’d tried to hide my reading in the locked bathroom. I’d tried to reserve my immersion to the toilet seat, but there was no way to conceal it. I was voracious for story. Starved for legend. I read book after book after book.
Mother looked at me. Strangely. Something was brewing. Something had to pop. The strain in the house now that Father had to work at a job full-time he didn’t like was like a weather pressure system on the verge of exploding. I watched Mother watch me. She never looked at you directly unless you were in trouble. I brought a fork heavy with steak to my lips. She said: “That’s Baby you’re eating.”
I pulled the cold tongs from between my lips, metal scraping teeth. I stared at her helpless. Baby was a brother to me. Baby was my favorite calf. I’d bottle fed him and loved him like a pet. She knew that. Toughen up, her glowing green irises said. Toughen up, Pearl. Get your head out of books. You ain’t gonna survive the real world.
I swallowed the bite nearly whole, and the meat made a hard lump in my throat Do not love the earth. Do not become attached to it. Do not bond. Do not think you are that hoof, that forehead, those deep pools. If you do, there is no room for you. You will be beaten as if you are a beast. Gutted. You will kicked in the gut again and again. You will be thrown off the land. You will find less and less of the earth to call your own.
I had no stomach for the rest of the meal. I pushed my chair back and the leg farted against the linoleum. At the same time, Father mumbled something toward his plate. It was hard to translate him normally, but the grunting chair made it hopeless. I stopped mid-air, hand next to the cutlery. If you didn’t get him what he wanted, when he wanted it, there was always hell to pay.
“Go on outside and wait for me,” he growled again, gesturing a fork toward the door.
I went out across the scrubby front yard and sat on the grass. I picked the skin around my thumbs until they bled. I watched the leaves twirl in tiny whirlwinds on the gravel road.
The screen door slammed. I stood up and wiped the blood from my picked over thumb onto my palm. Father smashed a path across the front yard, retrieved a sliver of meat from between his teeth with a toothpick. His left trouser leg flopped from the top of his work boot like a fish in the bottom of a boat. He walked past me without looking up, went into the middle of the road and stood with his legs apart.
“Come on. Get on over here,” he said. He looked straight up the hill.
It dawned on me what he wanted. It dawned on me what he wanted to do. I went to the middle of the road. He smelled dark and hard like yellowed work socks after a long day of construction. There was no way, no way at all, he was going to win this one.
I put my right foot forward and my right hand on my knee. I looked over and saw Mother looking at us through the curtains of the front window.
“One….Two…Three,” I shouted. I took off like a shot, punching the air with my fists. If he wanted a race, he’d get a race. No problem. No problem at all.
I was known to run around the block. I was the fastest runner in those parts. It was a long block, nearly a mile from start to finish. Neighbor boys would come to the screen door, call inside, ask me for a race. I always obliged. I always won.
I ran hard uphill on Powow. As I was about to turn onto to Tomahawk, I whipped a glance back. Father seemed to move in slow motion, skinny legs pulling up in front of him, boots flapping against the road. His mouth hung open in heavy breathing. That head of hair like a sudden forest fire.
Tomahawk was potholed from farmers’ truck running it winter after winter. It was a normal rural road, shouldered by forests on both sides, here and there a house sitting far back. It helped me to think I was normal and running was normal, a 12-year-old racing a father was normal, an every day, straightforward normal thing. Val drove by in the baby blue Caddy. I waved, but she seemed to be focused on Father behind me. She lifted her sunglasses to stare. I turned around and saw Father hacking and holding his side. She parked in the middle of the road and got out to make sure he was OK, but he threw her arm off, stumbled forward. I turned my focus back, whipped hard down Mohawk.
On Mohawk, it started to happen. My mind slipped off its post. It was why I ran, to forget, to lose myself. The forest turned lime and glowed. Wind whipped leaves and branches in a slow dance. I danced with the leaves. I became the earth and it became me. My mind went clear. All that was left was salty sweat falling like a promise across my lips and wind so strong it washed everything, absolutely everything, right out of my head.
I was back at the house in record time. The problem with running around the block is that it always led you back, no matter how fast you were. Despair crept slowly like rainwater back into my rafters. I stood in the middle of the road and waited. Whole minutes went by before Father turned the corner at the bottom. He was tired. His boots flopped, clown shoes on stick legs winging sideways even as they barely left the street. He was rasping, coughing, hacking up phlegm, spitting. His face blew Pall Mall red. I could see his knobby knees through the faded cloth of his work pants. His blue work shirt was soaked in sweat.
The final few yards were straight uphill. He clenched his whole body. His hands by his shoulders, he pumped his elbows. The hill got even steeper, and he leaned his upper body forward and spat. As I stood in the middle of the road, with him leaning like that and looking at me, I thought: he’d like a big baby taking his first steps. .A line of slobber ran through the crevasses and potholes along his long thin chin. I could feel a heaviness from him that would surely undo me. He was too much weight. A load of untold stories. He was looking right at me, holding his arms out, leaning. I nearly put my arms out, nearly urged him toward me.I caught myself in time, jerked upright. I turned my back on him. I dug my fists deep into the pockets, went to pace the front yard.
He sputtered to a stop next to me in the yard, coughed, bent over his knees, laughed and coughed some more. I took a sideways glance at the sweat on the back of his thin neck. I stretched my hand out. I just wanted to touch him while my mind was clear, just some sort of contact. Blood of my blood. Flesh of my flesh. We weren’t allowed to touch. The only touch was a smack to the side of the head, a leather belt to the ass. My fingers came close to his neck, but before I reached him, he stood and turned toward the house.
“Mother,” he called, limping across the grass. “Mother!” He coughed. He turned the corner. I heard the screen door open and slam. “I did it! I ran the whole damn thing.” I heard him yell. “Goddamn, I did it.”
I’m a writing coach and offer a free initial consultation, www.artofstorytellingonline.com.