The Fire Fire
Recognized as “Notable Story” in the 2007 Million Writers Awards.
David Andrew Stoler is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in alternative weeklies across the country. He was named New York Times Fellow in fiction at New York University in 2000, and he received his MFA there in 2002. Currently, he teaches creative writing to at-risk and special needs kids in New York City public schools through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative, and to young cancer survivors through the NYLife Lab. You can reach him by email.
for Laurence Hawser
Apparently my father, in his later years, developed a taste for being penetrated rectally by young boys. Not particularly young, I should say, and not plural “boys,” either. For all I can tell, in fact, it was just the one: Timothy Carroll, a seventeen-year-old sophomore who lived around the corner from us and whose older brother Brian had been my classmate at New Dorp High.
I discovered this the day after my father’s funeral. The service itself was what I’d expected, the baking hot synagogue dotted with temple old-timers, a couple of unanticipated and ancient second cousins, my dad’s engineering contemporaries from over at the institute, and lots of my mom’s friends. We drove out to Baron Hirsh Cemetery in a solemn line, lit headlights brown in the bright summer sun, and laid the man next to his mother and father in a plot that no one in my immediate family had seen since my grandmother’s burial twelve years earlier. It was the only time I’ve ever ridden in a limo. I wore my one suit.
That afternoon the traditional hard-boiled eggs and lentils sat untouched next to the more popular non-secular items: the onion dip, the almond cake, the quiche. Everyone had coffee in our den, my mother sitting on the couch in a black Chinese cheongsam-style dress, flinching visibly at every piece of cemetery dirt tracked across our beige carpet by my father’s oblivious colleagues. It had been one of my mother’s rules, strictly enforced since the new carpet was laid fifteen years before: Shoes Off Immediately Upon Entry. My mother knew she couldn’t insist on this rule now, and that was probably the worst part of the whole thing for her. She’d have to rent a steam vac.
For me, putting my rubber soles down on the thick plush for the first time was almost erotic, a little electric thrill running through me when I thought my mother might see and be unable to comment, if only for propriety’s sake. Soon though, shame creeping up on me, I took my shoes off anyway, then brought her a refill of coffee that was mostly just Kahlua. After tasting it, she looked up at me gratefully.
During my third whiskey I stumbled to my dad’s stereo and put on Casals doing Bach’s Cello Suites, even though there wasn’t supposed to be any music. The rough-hewn cello felt like autumn, all papered leaves and the peace of being inside while a wind might twist against the windows. The music was out of place in the dead summer air, but still, it was my father’s favorite, and that seemed appropriate.
When the service was over, the guests gone, my mother immediately set to straightening up the house. Still in her dress, her teeth clenched, she attacked the floor on hands and knees with carpet spray and sponge as viciously as if she were sanding wood, only looking up occasionally to reach for her drink. Without saying a word, I put all the dirty dishes into the sink, then went upstairs, hung my suit and fell asleep naked in the overwhelming heat.
The next day was even hotter, and I woke up late and drenched in sweat, my head and tongue heavy from the day before’s whiskey. Downstairs, my mother told me her friends were coming over for lunch. After coffee I went to clean up, but she was already in the bathroom putting on her makeup and fixing her hair. So I went to the basement to use the shower there.
I hadn’t been down the rubber-lined stairs in years. As a kid the basement, all spider-webbed corners, was too scary to spend any time in, and if my parents told me to go and get a spare light bulb I’d plead with them not to make me. My father would send me anyway, telling me not to be such a baby. I’d be terrified, and when I’d finally find the bulbs I would turn and run back upstairs as fast as I could, sure that I was being chased by whatever monsters lived there.
But when I got to high school the basement became more appealing. I set up my own den, complete with an old couch, a TV, Nintendo. During summers my father spent every day in his air-conditioned office, so of course it was fine if we were the only family on the block without an AC at home. The cellar was the coolest part of the house, there was a bathroom and a shower, and I’d only come upstairs for the meals my mother wouldn’t allow me to bring down. The basement was private, and I felt like it was mine. I would play music loud and stay up as late as I wanted, and my few friends and I would sneak down beer when we could get some, would smoke weed by the high window without concern of getting caught. Sometimes, late at night, I still got scared. Sure that each creak of the house’s foundation was actually an intruder, I’d bolt awake on the couch, my eyes wide and searching in the particled dark. But I wouldn’t let myself go upstairs, instead whispering baby at myself until I fell asleep again.
I guess in the last six years my father had figured out the virtues of having one’s own dark space. What was once my clubhouse had been taken over: the couch, the TV, all of my band posters were gone, replaced by a huge raw-wood table that held an intricate scale model of all of Staten Island, including the beginnings of a detailed version of our town. The bay was thick, gray, translucent polyurethane, and there were small train tracks emerging from a tunnel near the Narrows. The tracks circled the island, then rose up onto a bridge near the Goethels. There they dipped into a tunnel and looped all the way around under the table and back to the Narrows. The layout was obviously in a state of construction: hills were only curves of tight metal screen, tracks ended abruptly, whole stretches were just outlines and measurements in soft pencil. There was a worktable nearby and several trains in various stages of completion, sheets of tin and tiny motors, a soldering iron and an air-brush. And, drawn in my father’s immaculate hand on a piece of graph paper, the plans for a model of our house.
The detail of the whole thing, the time my father had spent obsessing over it, indeed the presence of the dead man in everything on the table creeped me out. I could see him here, his back beginning to bend with age, his hair graying, in a sweater against the winter chill, working alone late at night. Muttering to himself, as he always did. I felt like I had walked in on him, on something secret, or like he was watching me then, was still there. Suddenly the basement seemed quite cold, and I headed quickly to the shower.
My father didn’t have the clean bug like my mom, and I guess she’d left this bathroom to him. Unlike his work space, where every tool was in its outlined place on the wall or in a drawer, the bathroom was chaos. There were crusty-stiff hand towels everywhere, bars of dirty soap and greasy cans of acetone and Goop hand cleaner. The tap smelled of sulfur. When I pulled the moldy shower curtain aside I had to cover my nose. It was clear he hadn’t used the shower to bathe in a long time; it was covered in a thick film of slime, and there was a mop and bucket on the floor that was full of murky brown water that smelled so bad it made me gag. I took the bucket out and dumped the water in the laundry sink. At the bottom was a swollen and half-decomposed mouse.
I could have gone upstairs then, should have called it quits and whined at my mother until she got out of the bathroom. It wouldn’t have been the first time. But I didn’t. I don’t know if it was guilt about the shoes on the carpet the day before, or knowing how upset she would be if she found out about the mess, but I was going to have to clean it up, and an anger bloomed inside of me right then. An anger at my father for having left it like this, for letting the mess get this bad in the first place.
I went and opened the small cubby next to the toilet in search of cleaning supplies. Sitting there, neatly stacked on the unfinished concrete, was a bundle of my father’s magazines: Edmund’s Scientific catalogues, National Geographic, and years’ worth of Model Railroader. When I pulled out the big pile I found another, different stack, this one bound in bunny-ears-tied string and made up of unlabelled, green file folders.
My chest got tight, a lump crawling up my throat as I opened the top folder and noticed the first pictures. A different sort of catalogue entirely, there were pages and pages of glossy magazine spreads, all cut precisely with an Xacto knife, all featuring the kind of pictures you’d see in Abercrombie & Fitch advertisements. There were maybe ten or fifteen shots, and every one of them featured young men with perfect hair: at the beach, in a park, playing football or splashing in the ocean. Some were muddy, others drenched so what clothes they had on stuck to their slick, beefy bodies. The dirty football players had their arms around each other, or were leaping and tackling, shirts raised in action and exposing cut six-pack abs. In the ocean they were mostly shirtless, bare chests shaved, bathing suits hung so low you could make out the top of what was clearly well-groomed pubic hair. None of them had any heads. They had all been neatly cut off, cropped in a line across the top of the whole photo, so that only thick bodies remained, frolicking in the scene below.
I shut the folder and closed my eyes as a tremor of shock passed through my body. I wanted a cigarette. I wanted a drink. Mostly I wanted to not be in the basement anymore. I wanted to be far away, to not have to be dealing with any of it: my father’s death, my mother’s tight-lipped grief, the heat of the house and the stifling air of Staten Island.
But I didn’t leave, didn’t get up and go get a drink or go out into the sunny day. I couldn’t: these folders were, in a sense, part of my father’s estate, and somewhere deep down I needed to know just exactly what that estate was.
The pictures only got worse. In the next folder the boys were almost fully nude, stretched across the page displaying impossibly inflated groins tucked into ultra-tight underwear. In many of these my father hadn’t even had to crop the photos. The advertisements were just of the bodies: faultless, always muscular, without birth mark or body hair.
I felt ashamed. Simply to be looking at the photos, at the maleness of them, but then also, clearly, I felt ashamed by the implication. I could not figure out what they might be doing in my father’s private bathroom, couldn’t synchronize the content of them with any idea I had of the old man. My mind raced in search of possibilities other than the obvious one, but none would quite come.
But if I couldn’t figure out what exactly these photos meant about my conception of my father, as I scanned the other files it became undeniable. Each folder seemed to be divided into theme, my father’s engineering instincts present even here. The models got younger, the pictures more provocative. Boys that weren’t out of high school, their bodies still gawky arms and undeveloped chests, stood in white jocks around what looked like a locker room bench, or were lifting barbells in a weight room, or were wrestling on a gym floor. Underwear became no underwear, these weren’t advertisements anymore, the quality got worse, the lighting rough and the exposure poor, and in the last folder there were older men in the pictures, too. Hairy and overweight, their faces also out of frame, their pale bodies wrapped basely around the boys’ perfect limbs.
I sat, stunned, on the bathroom floor. The pile of folders lay haphazardly in my lap, spilled in a heap. And then, peeking out of one, something I hadn’t noticed when I was flipping through them: a notebook. It was thick and coverless, was of the yellow, lined paper my father preferred, and in fact looked exactly like any of a number of pads that were still scattered around the house. The pages were covered in script, the perfect almost-print of my father’s mechanical pencil. I picked it up and started reading.
Only one memory I had of my father seemed relevant to his keeping this journal. When I was in the fifth grade I got caught having scribbled “Amanda Ackerman is a fat cow” in Amanda Ackerman’s end-of-the-year signature book. My teacher, Miss Stückhausen, immediately yanked me out of the classroom by my hair and sent me to the office of our principal, Mr. Wang. Mr. Wang called my parents, and soon thereafter my father arrived.
Normally, it would have been my mother who came to school. I’m not sure where she was that day, but the burden had fallen on my father, a man whose temper was lightning quick and equally unfathomable to a young boy, and who also had a proclivity toward a more painful brand of corporal punishment than my mother. The result was that I was terrified, my chest hitching from recent tears and anticipated new ones. At the meeting my father was unreadable, sitting patiently while Mr. Wang showed him the vandalized book and explained how it was something Amanda had been meant to treasure forever as a souvenir of her time at PS 41. He said nothing to me for the entire car ride home. I sat paralyzed by fear, sure that his silence and calm demeanor hid a rage too great to be expressed in public but which, in the privacy of home, would prove apocalyptic.
But at the end of that silent car trip, when we pulled up to our house, my father simply sat there, staring through the windshield at the empty street as the car idled. Finally, he turned to me, smile and grimace sharing his face equally, and said only, “Never write it down. If you write it down, they have proof.” When he reached across my lap I flinched, but he just opened my door and sent me alone into the house.
And yet, he had apparently done just that: he had written it down. In the notebook, in excruciating detail, each entry time-stamped and dated and laid out in his precise script. I went through it all. How he had berated himself for his feelings, cursed himself, then tried to figure out exactly what it was that was going through his head. The words were passionate, more excitable and emotional than I could ever remember him being. He fought with himself, argued with himself, hated himself, and, in the end, just a few weeks before his death, he gave in.
According to my father’s journal, this spring my mother had hired Timothy Carroll to do some work around the house. I had never really liked the Carroll brothers. When they moved to the neighborhood from Canada with their pickup truck and torn street hockey net I pegged them pretty quickly as thugs-in-the-making. Brian was fourteen then, Timmy was eight, and their father had owned a chain of gas stations in Ottawa. It was rumored he had had to leave Canada fast after some shady dealings with a supplier, though how anyone in our town would have known that is beyond me. Despite my reservations I made a go of it with Brian. The Carrolls had a broken-down trike in their driveway, and the idea that they might get it up and running was enough to keep me hanging out with him for a summer or so. It became clear soon enough that the trike was never going to get moving, and my friendship with Brian likewise stalled pretty quickly after that.
Brian and Timothy Carroll weren’t exactly the brightest kids. Brian had a deep, slow voice, like his tongue was too big for his mouth, and, for example, just couldn’t figure it out when our JV soccer team was learning the Offside Trap. It didn’t help that he would soon spend a lot of time in the weight room, was growing quickly thick and tall, and also had the advantage of being the new kid in town. The girls at school were into him and he played it up, acting tough and dumb. I couldn’t believe how much they loved his act, and the more they did the more annoyed I grew.
His brother looked just like him, but in miniature. I was in high school, Timothy was only in elementary school, but I could already envision him in a couple of years in a baseball cap and button down getting drunk on canned beer and whiskey and getting in fights at parties on the baseball field near our houses late at night. Really, what I could already see back then was Timothy Carroll in a baseball cap and Abercrombie & Fitch button down, in a pack of similarly dressed friends, walking around like they owned wherever it was they were, wrestling with each other, being loud and playing football at the beach and kicking sand on people without even knowing it.
And I guess my father saw that too. His notes start light, seeing the kid Ellen hired to clean the gutters. And yet I know of no other example of my father writing down his thoughts about anything that wasn’t job related. Grocery lists, a quick diagram about some project at work, all only occasionally. Never once his thoughts. And even here there was no context for it, just a few lines about the work he was thinking of doing on the house this summer, that he might need some help, that maybe he would ask “the kid.” Aside from the fact that my father never did work on the house during the summers or any other season, even if he was planning to I couldn’t imagine why he would write down who he might possibly hire to help. Did he know why he was doing it? At this early stage? Was he providing cover for himself, without really knowing yet what he was covering up for?
The gutters took a full two weeks, and soon the pretense for my father’s notes disappeared. He described coming up from the basement and bumping into Timothy in the kitchen. My mother wasn’t there, but Timothy was helping himself to a glass of water against the spring heat. They talked for a moment, my father noting with surprise that Timothy had a brother who was in my class. It had been six years, but I would be surprised if my father had ever known about Brian, that we had been momentary friends. Hell, I would be surprised if he had even known the Carrolls lived in the neighborhood.
My father left Timothy and returned to the basement, but the seed had been planted. He wrote here a clear description of Timothy that day: dirt streaked across his forehead, he was sweating through his white t-shirt, was wearing work boots and camo shorts in the pockets of which he had stuck his dirty work gloves. My father didn’t notice that Timothy wasn’t the sharpest stone, he noticed that he was strong, tan, a fine young man. That’s what he wrote. A fine young man. As if he was trying to convince somebody. Or as if he was trying to convince himself.
The situation progressed. My father greeted Timothy in the mornings, watched him drag his ladder and buckets around the yard while reading the morning paper in the back room. He wrote out the little dialogue they exchanged each day, had a code in the corner of each entry that indicated which of three or four t-shirts and three pairs of shorts (c.d. for his cutoff denim jeans, w.t. for his dirty white tennis shorts, and m.c. for the camos: military cargo) Timothy had on that day, whether he was wearing work boots or sneakers, each observation made offhand and as if it related to this grand work of cleaning the gutters, or couched in the supposed plans my father had for the house.
When the gutters were finished my father suggested my mother get Timothy to paint the shutters, something she had been asking him to have done for perhaps a decade. When they were painted, he thought maybe they should start doing some landscaping. In the heat of early summer, Timothy would sometimes work shirtless, and my father stopped waiting for him to come inside for water. He brought out cold soda, a towel to wipe his sweat; he told Timothy to take a break, get out of the heat. While my mother was out with her friends, usually playing golf, my father started working from home more and more. He began to ask Timothy to come in for lunch, and soon he’d offer the seventeen-year-old beer.
As to whether Timothy himself thought any of these gestures might be a little strange, I didn’t have any idea. It was hard to imagine he didn’t, but my father’s notes, though detailed, were brief. For one day he wrote only, T.C. sullen today. Another was in all-caps: t silent. wrong??!! Aside from these and other brief descriptions, and my father’s often palpable disappointment surrounding the shorter entries, there weren’t many clues to what was really going on between the two during these beginning stages. For all I could tell, things moved forward amiably enough. My father talked sports with him, snuck him a beer or a nip of Sambucca, fed him turkey sandwiches at lunchtime.
The work, however, began to run out. The gutters were clean, the shutters painted, the lawn in immaculate shape, seeded and fertilized and fed. The driveway was sealed thick and black, the smell of tar and sun wafting through the neighborhood. Our house looked better than it had in years and there was, simply, little more for a not-so-bright boy of seventeen to do. The siding might need replacement, the roof re-slating, but any of those jobs would take men, not a single boy.
A panicked edge crept into the notepad here, as my father scrambled to think of small projects Timothy could do. He wrote out a list of them, and soon there was a new band of forsythia limp and out of place around our lamppost; impatiens appeared around the path that led to the front door; sunflowers lined our wooden fence. The house was being dressed like a recent divorcée at a temple mixer.
And then everything on my father’s list was checked off. The week of July 4th my father’s despair was apparent: the Carrolls had gone away for their summer vacation, Timothy went with them, and the journal was almost completely bare. There was only the one entry for the entire week, the pencil pressed deeply into the page: 4 July 2003, 7 am. car packed for belmar. no sign. And then, somewhat quizzically placed by itself a couple of lines farther down: stop.
Though that last word sat there on the page like a plea, though it was a clear sign, to me at least, that my father knew that what he was doing was wrong, he didn’t stop. It was as if his desire was a rock falling down a mountainside; once that initial slip, he was no longer in control, no matter the damage caused. As long as fate kept the possibility of encounter open, my father would have no choice but to watch it play out. And there was one more time he could count on seeing Timothy again. In the notebook he wrote how he had yet to pay Timothy for the last bit of work he had done, and certainly the boy wouldn’t let that slide. My father knew that, and he used the Carrolls’ vacation week to think about his next move. So when they returned and Timothy came to get paid, my father had ready an array of things to talk about to try to catch his interest.
Sunday afternoon, overcast, humid, my father wrote. My mother had, as usual, gone to play golf (or, if it rained, sit in the 19th hole sipping sombreros and eating grilled chicken Caesar salads with her friends), leaving my father alone in the house. He worked on his computer in the living room, keeping an eye through the front windows just in case Timothy happened to come by, and soon enough that’s exactly what happened. My father’s heart began thumping solid in his chest when he saw the top of Timothy’s head pass on the sidewalk outside, heard his boots on the steps there. He jumped up and met him at the door. Invited him in. He was, as he put it in the journal, shaking with nerves. Felt like a kid at a recital.
Although he knew that Timothy was there to get paid, he didn’t bring it up. He tried instead to make conversation, but he found it difficult to talk, the words coming out of his mouth sounding like nonsense even to him. He ticked off the subjects he had come up with, peppering Timothy with questions about the Carrolls’ vacation (It was fun, Timothy learned how to wakeboard), about the Yankees’ third-base situation (Timothy was more of a hockey fan, he knew that, why hadn’t he read up on the Rangers’ draft?), about the rest of his summer plans (Find a job, hang out with his friends.)
Soon my father had exhausted all of his pre-planned conversation topics. The two stood there in the foyer then—awkward—as my father’s mind raced through possible new threads, quickly trying out and discarding as stupid one idea after another. Eventually Timothy brought up the money, and my father went and got it for him. He counted out the cash as slowly as he could, hoping still to think of something else to say, anything that would keep Timothy in the house for just a few minutes longer. But he couldn’t. Instead, he walked Timothy back to the door, all the while growing dejected inside. He handed Timothy the cash, tipped him nearly 100% of the total, and thanked him for all the work. Timothy thanked him back, and that was it. There was nothing left. They stood silently for a moment in the doorway, my father fairly certain this would be the last time they would be that close. A flush of resignation filled him both with a relief that he hadn’t done something irrevocable, and a misery at just how strongly he wanted to. He felt defeated, but more than anything, he wrote, he felt small.
As the screen door began to close behind the younger Carroll, one last idea blossomed in my father’s head. This last thought seemed suddenly obvious to him, though as he spoke the words they, too, seemed to him to be silly, to reveal the situation for what it was: an old man courting a young boy. He knew inside that it was a last, desperate gasp, but with no other way to make Carroll stay he blurt it out anyway. “Hey, Timothy,” my father said. “Did I ever show you my trains? They’re pretty neat. I have this whole layout in the basement. All of Staten Island’s down there. It’s not done yet, but it’s pretty cool. Do you want to have a look?”
And if Timothy Carroll looked and sounded just like his older brother Brian, if soon enough he would reveal himself to be just as much of a punk, my father had struck upon the one way in which the two brothers differed. It was a secret place held deeply within Timothy, and of which he was equally deeply ashamed. Because, despite his thick head, his thickening body and hands, Timothy Carroll loved all things miniature. Matchbox cars, toy soldiers, model airplanes: though he knew he was much too old for any of them, though his older brother and father had teased him mercilessly about them when they found him still playing with them the last year, had told him that “only girls played with dolls,” had called him “fag” and “queer,” and though he had struck his brother then, had wrestled with Brian until the stronger, older brother had pinned him, had sat above him and taunted him in falsetto before letting a slow loogie fall toward his face, so that he had soon after cached his shoe-box collections under the eaves of the Carrolls’ attic, still Timothy couldn’t resist the pull of the world represented in the tiny, detailed copies.
At least this is what he told my father as they wound their way through the house toward the basement. Timothy was enthralled by the trains. He watched them circling, his eyes bright, and soon enough he asked my father if he could conduct them. My father stood behind him, took his hand and placed it on the controller. As the two guided the trains together, Timothy’s hand under my father’s, my father could hardly breathe. When he did, the smell of Timothy’s skin made him weak-kneed. He grew excited, physically, and told Timothy to crouch down to see the trains coming and going at eye level, told him they would appear to be life-size then. And as Timothy followed his instruction, all the while allowing my father’s hand to continue holding his at the controller, my father crouched next to him, pointing at the train’s headlight as it came around a not-yet-built mountain and toward them in New Dorp. They stood at the station, and as the train roared by Timothy leaned back away from it, and my father pressed his body against his, fully.
Scared. That’s how my father described how he was feeling. But if he had no idea how to proceed, Timothy certainly did. For a boy my father considered some kind of ideal innocent, he definitely knew how to take control. Timothy separated himself from my father, stood up, and turned around. Then he began to undress. My father was overwhelmed; he could barely look at Timothy, though when he did what he saw was angelic, milky pale, and incredibly new.
Timothy wasn’t exactly gentle with him. My father’s journal, though generally restrained as concerned the details of the actual sex, made that much clear. At one point my father had to grope blindly for the train table for support, only to slip, tearing away his model of the New Dorp Light House.
Regardless, it was soon over, both of them sweating and panting half-naked on the basement’s rough carpet as the trains continued to whiz around the tracks above their heads. And then something strange happened. My father, who I had not once in my life seen come even close to crying, began to weep. He tried to stop himself, pressed on his eyes with his fingers, but he couldn’t hold the tears back. They sprung up from his chest as a tightness that pressed through his whole body, and soon he was shaking with sobs. He wept for what he had done, for what he now undeniably was, and also for the beauty and horror of the dream fulfilled.
Which of course freaked Timothy out. Blotches of blush spread across his bare, hairless chest and up through his neck to his cheeks. My father didn’t know what to say, could barely speak, but when Timothy stood up, quickly pulled up his pants and began to leave, he tried to stop him. Timothy got angry then, shoved my father back down to the floor, yelled out only, “I didn’t want to!” and ran up the stairs and out of the house. My father stayed where he was, his wet eyes closed tight and his head buried in his hands.
The first few days after that my father was wracked by a guilt far worse than any he had experienced before. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat, was tortured by the reality of what he had done. I wondered, too, if more than anything he was heartbroken. The notes he wrote during that time bear more than a little resemblance to ones I could remember writing to girls who broke up with me in Middle School. His were increasingly frantic, often written late at night in a hand that began less and less to resemble the neat print of the man I knew. Two in particular gave an indication of how he was feeling: on Tuesday, 8 July, at 3:15 a.m., he wrote the word stupid over and over again across two and a half pages. There was nothing from the day of the eighth, but that night, 9 July, at 2:20 a.m., there was an entry that contains just one word as well, though this time written only once, centered and underlined on the first line of the page: why?
On July 11th there was a knock on the front door of our house during dinner. My mother started up from the table, but my father, coming alive for the first time in days, suddenly realized who it might be. Panicking, he sat my mother down. “I’ll get it,” he said, and nearly ran toward the front of the house. Timothy Carroll was standing there, and before my father could speak Timothy looked at him hard and said, “I want fifty bucks.”
My father knew immediately what was going on. Still, like a wishful lover, he held out hope. He invited Timothy in, asked if he wanted to join my mother and him for dinner. Timothy didn’t decline, didn’t come in, didn’t say anything except to repeat his demand. “Fifty bucks,” he said, and then added, just so there would be no confusion, “or I’ll tell.”
“Fine, Timothy,” my father said. “Okay.” He walked back through the living room, past my mother’s questioning face in the dining room and into the kitchen, where his wallet was. In which he only had about ten bucks. He started looking through my mother’s purse, digging through it in search of her wallet, when she came into the kitchen demanding to know what he was doing. He told her that he had underpaid the Carroll kid, but that he was short now. If my mother recognized the alarm on his face, the way he wouldn’t look at her as he rifled through her wallet until he had enough money, she didn’t say anything to him. They had lived together for thirty-five years in that house; I couldn’t imagine she didn’t see something there. But if she did, she ignored it and went back to the dinner table while my father went to the front door and handed over the wrinkled bills. He tried again to talk to Timothy, caught his eye once more as the money exchanged hands, half-whispered “Timothy…,” but Carroll gave him nothing in return. He snatched the money, then turned and walked away, his head down.
A week later, Timothy returned and the scene was repeated. My father felt trapped; he felt like he deserved what he was getting, and at the same time he wanted to see Timothy badly enough that even the extortion was, in a way, a relief. At first Timothy’s demands consisted only of money. But soon they morphed into the small-minded dreams of a seventeen-year-old: a case of beer, a carton of cigarettes, a pair of roller-blades. Then they got more extravagant. First it was a fancy cell-phone, then a Sony PlayStation, then a video camera. Finally, as if he knew what it would do to my father, Timothy demanded a new Ford Mustang.
Of course, my father could afford none of these more expensive things without drawing the attention of my mother. The journal’s final entry is a simple note stating the obvious: that it was over. That everything was. Both the life that he had led, his job, perhaps his marriage, and also the impossible dream of a relationship with Timothy that he still held in a secret room in his heart. He couldn’t imagine a way out of the situation and so would have to do something serious. Leave town, or go and talk to Timothy’s parents. He would have to tell my mother. My father despaired at the thought of it, but one thing he didn’t do, not anywhere in that last note, was assign blame. He never got angry at Timothy for his outlandish demands, or his stupidity in not understanding what they would mean for the both of them. He expressed only regret: that he had allowed himself to take his fantasy too far, that he had had it at all. He wished more than anything to be back in that before-time, when he could sit calmly at his workshop table and detail the paint on a mountain or house treatment without being tortured by his new love.
Though the journal doesn’t continue after that my mother told me what happened next. The night of that last note she cooked a dinner of Cajun-style catfish grilled on their George Foreman, baked beans and salad, which they ate in relative silence. My father watched the Yankees lose an 8-0 shutout to the Toronto Blue Jays, snacked on popcorn, got ready for bed like it was any other night. As he got changed he complained of heart burn to my mother, but she told him it was probably just the beans.
At around 3:30 a.m. my mother awoke, startled. My father was sitting up in bed, had one hand pledge-of-allegiance-style over his heart while the other pressed hard into her thigh. His eyes were staring at a point far beyond the bedroom wall. “I’m sorry,” he said to no one, and then lay back fully. My mother pulled a pillow over her head, cursed him, and fell back asleep. When she woke the next morning, he was dead.
“What are you doing?” my mother said, turning into the bathroom. I had been sitting there in a daze, and I guess I hadn’t heard her on the basement stairs. I was startled and immediately jumped up and started collecting all of the files and papers, trying to hide them from her.
“What are those?” she demanded.
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s nothing.” She wasn’t having it. She went right for the notepad, and before I could figure out if I even wanted to stop her from seeing what my father had written, the pad was in her hands. I stood silently aside as she flipped through the pages. Her face was steady, showing no emotion as her eyes scanned them. She didn’t take long. When she was done she looked up at me, sighed, and said, “He promised me he hadn’t done anything about it.” She looked down at the floor, then back at me. “He told me that he wouldn’t. That he never would.”
She was angry. Her face was pinched, her jaw tightly set. “What are we going to do,” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. But I did know. I knew right away. I took the notebook back from her, gathered up all of the files, and started upstairs. Out in the backyard, the big grill was a mess. That, too, my father would never clean when he was finished with it, this man who had told me, over and over again, that “a job isn’t finished until you’ve cleaned it up.” Until I had, it seemed he meant. I lifted the grill cover, the metal surface, and laid the pages down where the charcoal went. I dowsed them in lighter fluid, drew a match, and set it ablaze.
My mother came upstairs and watched for a moment, then went into the house and prepared for the arrival of her friends coming to sit shiva with her. When the doorbell announced their presence, I covered the still-burning ashes, washed up, and ate lunch with them. As if nothing had happened at all.
And I want to say right now that I believe in my heart that my father was a good person. I remember when I was little we’d play catch in our backyard. My father would pretend that I was the Yankee great Ron Guidry. I would be pitching to him, it was always the ninth inning, the Bombers up by one, and Kansas City had a guy on second and nobody out. We’d go through each Royals batter, my dad knew them all, and I’d pitch while he would call balls and strikes, make catchers’ signs, would sometimes, if the situation got particularly tight, become Billy Martin sauntering up to the mound for a conference. The Royals would swing, they would miss, or they’d connect for a pop-up high in the trees and I’d be Sweet Lou in left running to make the catch; or it’d be a bouncing grounder that I, as Bucky Dent, would have to scoop and throw to Chambliss, my father, at first.
What I mean is, he was a good father. He was the best father he could be.And if things changed between us sometime around my twelfth birthday, if for some reason I didn’t understand we grew so distant we hardly talked, became the opposite of the best friends we had been, that doesn’t take those other times, those good memories, away.
And I wonder, too, if the overwhelming feeling that I had in that bathroom, after reading the notepad, wasn’t jealousy. Because of how close we used to be, and how distant we had, by that point, become. I had thought that it was his fault, that I was wrong about our original closeness and that in fact my father just wasn’t an emotional person, just wasn’t connected, and therefore wasn’t connected to me. Or that he was disappointed in the way I had turned out. He didn’t understand me, I assumed, and wasn’t the kind of man to allow emotion to press him forward regarding me. And yet here was undeniable proof that he was emotional, that he could be very much invested in someone, or something. And I remember when I was little, I remember him doing this over and over again, this is the memory that brings me closest to actually feeling something about any of this, about his death, about the notepad, about the loss of him in my life: I remember him putting his hand on my cheek, under my ear, cupping my face and saying, “Marcus, I wouldn’t trade you for any other son in the world.”