The oil spray-on car cleaner smelled like Cape Cod sand and Miami sunsets. Cigarettes were now 7.75 and the paper numbers blew softly against the warring red and white Marlboro sign. The Newport add was brighter. Teal and lime green. Neon orange. Pleasure it said. Pleasure.
Submarine sun reflected off the glass specks melded into the gas station concrete. Reminding me of the acid pill Delaware said was covered with blue glitter. Like Dorothy’s ruby red sparkly slipper, she took from the dead witch.
Last night my parents danced in our mango colored living room like two people who were happy. This was their act of negotiation between now and the past. Only my dad had cried after as Nina Simone sang stories of Mississippi. Goddamn. They had laughed of dope days and LSD trips on beaches – my dad’s ex devil girlfriend luring him into violent red tide waves in the snow.
Memories traveling through time and space like clocks and rockets. The room was lit with candles and the flicker of the flames created animalistic shapes against our city walls. They had been doing this every Sunday since the first day of our new lives, when my mother had begun her two-day affair. All they had left now were the memories. Not about themselves together, because those would bring about painful truths. These were stories of their unlived lives. The memories of today.
Last night my father sipped his red wine and asked, “Kyle, how old will I be when you’re fifty?” I did not answer. Instead, I rose from the hardwood table, washed out my pasta bowl, and poured some more merlot into my oversized glass.
My father has been talking about death increasingly lately. I watch him read the obituaries on weekend mornings; he says he wants to see which childhood classmates have passed on.
I’ve seen age slowing carving its name out on my own face, my forehead a little rougher, the smile lines around my mouth beginning to deepen. I am twenty-one, and on Saturday, I plucked a gray hair from my chin and thought about shaving off my beard entirely, but then stopped. I will be old one day, but not yet.
His face was not what you would call handsome in a young Marlon Brando kind of way. Rather, it was interesting. Aesthetically intriguing. He turned 18 in 1969, the year the first man landed on the moon. Entering into adulthood in an era of transformative happenings. Because of this, his parents thought my father was destined for greatness. Growing up his nickname in his neighborhood had been Mooney. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated a year prior to my father’s arrival into this grown up world, five years after Malcolm X and JFK had been gunned down. My father’s year was different though and not consumed by death. A year of planet walking and new beginnings. A year of making something more.
His Mother had given birth to his younger brother in July of 1967, but he had died when he was born. As if he had never existed.
My father’s older sister was born in 1943, so he grew up on her stories of a beautiful America. When he decided to get up and go he left behind an American small town ideal. Pre suburbia, a place where milk was delivered in slender glass bottles. His own father had been the town’s milkman as a teen. Diners with malted shakes, burgers, and a jukebox filled with black tunes to move the white teenage masses. In some ways, he had always lived through someone else’s memories. Theses images were pleasing, at least for him.
“You know I cry too sometimes,” he had said to me after he had found me slumped over in the living room, with my head resting too heavily against my palms. My girlfriend had just called me a faggot outside the school dance. I told him I was crying because my best friend’s golden retriever had died. But that was three years ago. Now I knew he cried more than sometimes. He cried all the time. Always.
Last night my father had begun to cry again. He watched me while we listened to Fats Domino. He watched me while Delaware watched my mother, and my mother watched the clock. “Are you crying again Dad?” I asked him. I know my mother could sense the annoyance in my voice, but my father is too self-absorbed to recognize other people’s shifts in tone. “No, Kyle,” he said. “I’m just happy”.
Leaning against the hot white concrete wall, I watch the stubbly worker scrub down my ten-year old red Buick, while Marvin Gay’s “What’s Going On” travels between the gas pumps in the almost summer air. I’ve been planning to leave this place ever since my father started getting mixed up permanently. At first, I thought he was just being eccentric. Or maybe slightly delusional. His older sister has been on the medical dope out in San Jose for the last fifteen years. When Delaware left last night, my father whispered to me that Delaware’s been forgetting lately, says he doesn’t know what he’s talking about on their early morning walks. “But Dad,” I said, “those are your imagined memories, not his, how could he remember?” “No Kyle, they are his too.” He is sure.
Last night they argued about people overseas. Delaware said Italian people are all about smiling and French people are all about complaining. My father laughed and said he had it all wrong, French people were the complainers, and Italians always showed their teeth.
I wonder how they feel about black and white Americans; I wonder how they feel about each other.
Delaware was born in a coal-mining town in rural Pennsylvania, the same year four black girls were murdered in an Alabama church basement. He had come to the north to study the stars, to get away for a bit. But his mother called him a traitor and he became too use to life far northeast. There was an impossibility of returning home.
Him and my father had met at a little blues bar, and had bonded over their love of dry gin. Or so they tell me. If it is true it’s an anomaly resurrected in time.
I am usually silent when we have our dinners now. Stitching together a rare narrative in America, especially for a Sunday evening. We have replaced the segregated church day, with integrated liquor guzzling and loud stories to mask what is never said. I’ve learned that in order to be a good citizen in America, you have to forget a lot. Or keep it on the inside.
Seven months ago, my mother went out to dinner with her high school boyfriend and did not return home for two days. My father sat on our outside porch and waited for her. He stayed awake fueled not by anger, but by heartbreak. When she returned home, they did not speak for the first hour. Then she went out on the porch and told him she had made love with another man. “Escaping is not the answer,” he replied. “Sometimes,” she had said. I could hear their low voices move up and down through the living room windows. Images of their dusty sex toys clouded my mind. I had found them in a shoebox under my father’s side of the bed two years prior. They would not be using those again.
Our new lives had begun. My father would become obsessed with what was left behind. On his dresser are photographs of smiling white faces working the pre suburbia farmland. Me as a little boy dressed up in a white dress my babysitter had borrowed from her life-size Barbie. Photographs capturing the uncapturable. In a Cape Cod campground in 1986, my mother and father sit on a wooden bench in the woods, and drink pop out of glass bottles. My mother’s oversized grey sweatshirt hangs loosely off her carefree breasts, and my father’s left hand rests somberly on her thigh. Another photograph shows him and Delaware laughing when Delaware had an Afro and my father had a hippy beard, they are in a rusty kitchenette overlooking some city skyline. Radical. There they were. And self-indulgent. Often arrogant on Sunday afternoons. Photographs I have already seen, he shows me again and again. His effort to express love in a world that has lost its meaning.
My red Buick glimmers as dusk approaches and I contemplate not returning home. Some days it is just too hard. At night my mother sleeps on the plastic covered couch in the TV room. My father clenches his pillow closely, imagining her old scent, suffering from a sorrow so filling his belly curves outward with loss of hunger.
Last night I dreamed I was running through the grass on naked feet, away from my perfect yellow two-story home. In my dream, I am fifty and my father is dead. Delaware is buried in Pennsylvania, and my frail mother is living in her hometown of Chicago with a lover she hates. We speak only twice a year. I can see my two daughters dressing the playboy models with their paper doll clothes, thinking Mommy is a Martian because she has pubic hair. And I’m in the bathroom wondering why I married a woman after all. Thinking about what it means to be a man. What it means to be a man who loves other men in America. Nothing in the dream invites intimacy.
My father makes up stories, because he cannot remember facts. He chooses not to remember facts, as if he himself were a fiction. Even when he is not home, his memories are still lying there on the windowsill. Straddling between private and public space.
Last night my parents danced in our mango colored living room like two people who were happy. Delaware and I watched my father’s eyes brighten with excitement, my mother’s flare with false fragments of time. She did it for him, I guess. An obligation. A desire. A common surprise. There they were putting into reality a memory of something that did not exist. Spectacular.
Tired from the twist my father sits and talks with exuberance. He uses words that could create whole landscapes. Words that could free you. Epic. Mythic. Big. We do not believe his stories. We are only able to help him remember us when we were a family, the stories from the photographs lying on his dresser, the close yesterdays and today’s.
But not his own – we couldn’t grasp those, and lately the memories were all from his imagination. They were not collective. And like searching for mangos in a concrete field — he would never find them.
We sit and listen to Nina Simone, again. “Turning Point,” it’s my father’s favorite tune.
See the little brown girl
She’s as old as me
She looks just like chocolate
Oh mummy can’t you see
We are both in first grade
She sits next to me
I took care of her mum
When she skinned her knee
She sang a song so pretty
On the Jungle Gym
When Jimmy tried to hurt her
I punched him in the chin
Mom, can she come over
To play dolls with me?
We could have such fun mum
Oh mum what’d you say
Why not? oh why not?
Oh. . . I. . . see. . .
My father presses his palms together off rythm to the melody. His white hands move like dancers in heat, fingers stretching through the air with delicate machismo, softly making memories through motion. I try to memorize his weakening muscles, dripping flesh on broadened frame. What are the lyrics of a New England blues? How does it sound?
This will be the last song he will hear before his mind dies. When the possibility of memory to free him is nearly gone. A time when he will no longer remember the words, and softly hum the wrong tune.
Fifty-cent Tabletop apple pie and a Budweiser. Jesus dangling over the Newport cigarettes on my dashboard. One day I’m going to get up and go. Drive to a full service gas station, crank down my window and tell ‘em fill it up, I’ll take the supreme today. Smile and drive away real far until it’s just God and me. Pleasure I’ll find. Pleasure.