Breakfast

These were not the crunchy little pillows I was used to. These were spherical tan textured BBs. As the peculiar pellets cascaded into my oversized bowl—serving size be damned—they produced a stream of tinkling sounds as they grew into a mini-mountain. Then the whoosh as I poured milk around the mound of appetizing little balls, redolent with the aroma of artificial and natural flavors. I cared not—I devoured these tiny globes of joy. They delivered an audible crunch when munched, but it was the flavor that enthralled me—peanut butter. Peanut Butter Crunch. Has ever a cereal been more aptly named?

The entire mountain of morsels disappeared into my mouth. And what’s this? A soupy moat was left behind. Now I loved chocolate milk—but peanut butter milk? How glorious! I wanted to hug someone. Instead I drank the potion, and—for good measure—I shared it with my brother. By spitting the final mouthful in his general direction.

Lunch

“Hey. Get in.” As if I would just stand there and stare at him. Yeah, that’s why I woke up so damn early on a Saturday. So I could just stare at my father when he pulled up in his Chevy. Always a Chevy.

I eschewed even the most banal conversation, desperately hoping to avoid the inevitable.

“Did you ask your brother if he wants to come?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“He doesn’t.”

“Well, maybe next week.”

“Maybe.”

“You need cigarettes?”

“Yeah.” Smoking, along with a fondness for unhealthy food, was part of my father’s legacy. I’d started almost three years ago, the summer after my first year of high school.

“Then let’s go to the base.” Fort Hamilton Army base, located in Brooklyn within spitting distance of the Verrazano Bridge. As a Navy vet—honorably discharged—my father (and by extension, my mother, my brother, and I) enjoyed the privilege of access to the base, including the PX and the commissary, which was really just a gargantuan grocery store that sold brand names at ridiculously low prices. And cigarettes were especially cheap, costing less than half the price you’d pay anywhere outside the base.

Silence punctuated our drive on the Belt Parkway. As loquacious as I was among my friends, I had little to say to my father. Despite spending just about every Saturday with him for the past few years, I didn’t really know him. Had I been more creative, I might have developed a sitcom about my relationship with my father—he’s a 17-year-old honors student heading to college; his father is a manic-depressive schizophrenic navy veteran who can’t hold a conversation, let alone a job. Watch what happens when these two kooks get together every Saturday morning and try to form a relationship! Wednesday nights this fall on NBC!

We accomplished our mission and left the base. Next stop, the Bay Ridge Diner. Or maybe it was the Bridgeview. Or the Parkview. No difference really. What mattered was lunch, not where we ate it. Because we always ate it at a diner or a restaurant and never at the kitchen table or the dining room table.

I’m sure he ordered pot roast or meatloaf or prime rib with mashed potatoes or a baked potato. I, having no sense of nutrition, ordered a bacon cheeseburger and fries. Probably a chocolate shake too. Fatty fried foods and cigarettes. The bounty of Saturdays spent with my father.

He asked about school. Despite his many failures as a parent, he remained concerned about my academic progress. He’d never made it past the tenth grade himself, and he contributed absolutely nothing to my developing intellect, but he sure was proud of my sterling grades and my promising future. I always hoped that these conversations would help us get to know more about each other, but the extent of my father-knowledge remained limited to his lack of schooling, his early career as a grocery store clerk, his military service, and his mental illness. I also knew that he liked crime dramas and westerns. Barely enough to fill an obituary.

“How’s work?” I asked him, in an effort to fill the time before our food arrived.

“Hard to make any money when the cab is always breaking down.”

“Can’t they give you another cab?”

“They’re all out on the road. Cab breaks down. Nothing I can do. You need the medallion.”

Another common refrain. My father either had the worst luck of any New York City cab driver or he had no idea that he was such a shitty liar. And then the conspiracy theories.

“It’s the government. Ever since I was injured in the war, the CIA has been after me.”

My father insisted that he served in the Navy during the Korean War, even though he was just 16 years old when the war ended. He also repeatedly told a tale that described the non-specific “injury” he suffered as a result of an explosion on an unnamed aircraft carrier. Presumably, it was some sort of covert mission. Thus the CIA’s interest. Did I mention that my father liked spy movies too, especially James Bond films?

I’d heard these delusional rantings too many times, so I raced to finish my lunch and accelerate our departure. When the check came, my father made a pathetic attempt to flirt with the waitress. She skillfully deflected his efforts. I bowed my head and wished I were already back home.

The return trip on the Belt Parkway featured an even more robust silence than our morning journey. When we finally arrived back at the house in Woodhaven, we recited the familiar parting script.

“Ask your brother if he wants to come with us next week.”

“OK.”

“Give your mother my love.”

“OK.”

“See you next Saturday.”

“Bye.”

Neither of us ever said “I love you.”

Dinner

He was 46. “If he just took his medication.” My mother repeated this phrase—never finishing the thought—at every mention of my father. When we first found out. At the viewing. At the funeral. At the graveside service. When the attorney informed us that since my father had died intestate (a new SAT word for me), my brother would be the executor of his “estate,” since my parents had officially, finally divorced mere months before he dropped dead from coronary atherosclerosis (more verbiage for my expanding lexicon). I secretly wondered whether medication alone could have cured him (if indeed a cure were possible). And medication for what? How many pills and procedures would it have taken to abate his obesity, his hypertension, his diabetes, his cardiovascular catastrophe, his psychological privation?

I’d stood on the porch waiting for him on the Saturday morning when he didn’t come. I couldn’t call him because he had no home phone. Couldn’t afford one. So I waited. And he didn’t come. I’d been accustomed to his absence for most of my life. But that morning was different. Had I shared my suspicion with my mother, she would have called it intuition. As if my certainty that my father was dead was equivalent to the expectation that a fistfight would follow the sensation of an itchy nose.

Later that week, my manager at Roy Rogers (C’mon in!) Family Restaurant interrupted my shift.

“Your mom just called. You need to get home.”

“Why? What happened.”

“She just said you need to get home.”

As I walked into the dining room, I saw my brother sitting there. He’d been called home too from his job at Dean Witter Reynolds. I sat. My mother joined us.

“Slim died.” She wouldn’t even use his name or call him our father. Instead she used her clever nickname for him.

His mother hadn’t heard from him for a few days. She grew worried and went to his apartment. There was no answer. Summoned the landlord. No response. Called the cops. Entered. His decomposing body lay on his bed. He’d died alone—days ago? A week ago? He wasn’t important enough to merit attention from the Kings County Coroner’s Office, so we’d never know for sure. Yet another mystery left in the wake of my father’s unfulfilled life.

And now—after the infuriating viewing filled with hypocritical relatives who sobbed at his coffin though they never deigned to spend any time with him or help him in even the tiniest way when he was alive; after the lies my mother told our family about Vic (whom she’d started dating before my parents’ divorce was final— “He’s a neighbor,” she’d tell them. “A good friend.”); after realizing that I’d turn 18 (become a man, as the conventional wisdom goes) and graduate high school fatherless; after knowing that I’d live more of my life without my father than I ever had with him; after sensing that I would likely reach an age that my father had never seen—now, as I sat in my dorm room at Stony Brook, I wondered what I would do for dinner. Joining the meal plan, as most first-year students do, was beyond my financial means. What little of my father’s “estate” remained after the funeral bills were paid never made its way to me. In fact, neither my mother nor I knew how much money was left or what my brother did with it. But it certainly didn’t go towards paying my tuition or my dorm fees.

And so I began my college career alone in my dorm room. While other first-year students were cramped in tripled accommodations (due to temporary overcrowding, three students inhabited rooms intended for two), I enjoyed a room to myself—at least for the time being—since my intended roommate never showed up.

As I surveyed my new home and pondered my options for my first dinner as a college student, I stared at it encased in the triangular wooden box topped with a pane of clear glass. I stared at the expertly folded flag inside, the one that adorned the coffin of my father, the US Navy veteran.

“What now, Dad?”

©James Gilligan, 2018

Jim Gilligan is an Assistant Professor of English Education at San Francisco State University and a self-described “culture vulture.” In his next life, he will win a Cy Young Award as a pitcher for the New York Mets.

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One Response to “BLD by Jim Gilligan”

  1. K.Land Says:

    A lovely arc unfolds in this warm reflection on your father’s contributions to you, to the world.

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