That winter, like every winter before it, my father woke early each day and turned up the thermostat so the house would be warm by the time my mother and I got out of bed. Sometimes I’d hear the furnace kick in and the shower come on down the hall and I’d wake just long enough to be angry that he’d woken me. But usually I slept until my mother had finished making our breakfast. By then, my father was already at Goodyear, opening the service bay for the customers who had to drop their cars off before going to work themselves. Sitting in the sunny kitchen, warmed by the heat from the register and the smell of my mother’s coffee, I never thought about him dressing in the cold dark or shoveling out the driveway by porch light. If I thought of him at all, it was only to feel glad he was not there. In those days my father and I fought a lot, though probably not much more than most fathers and sons. I was sixteen then, a tough age. And he was forty, an age I’ve since learned is even tougher.
But that winter I was too concerned with my own problems to think about my father’s. I was a skinny, unathletic, sorrowful boy who had few friends, and I was in love with Molly Rasmussen, one of the prettiest girls in Glencoe and the daughter of a man who had stopped my father on Main Street that fall, cursed him, and threatened to break his face. My father had bought a used Ford Galaxie from Mr. Rasmussen’s lot, but he hadn’t been able to make the payments and eventually Mr. Rasmussen repossessed it. Without a second car my mother couldn’t get to her job at the school lunchroom, so we drove our aging Chevy to Minneapolis, where no one knew my father, and bought a rust-pitted yellow Studebaker. A few days later Molly Rasmussen passed me in the hall at school and said, “I see you’ve got a new car,” then laughed. I was so mortified I hurried into a restroom, locked myself in a stall, and stood there for several minutes, breathing hard. Even after the bell rang for the next class, I didn’t move. I was furious at my father. I blamed him for the fact that Molly despised me, just as I had for some time blamed him for everything else that was wrong with my life—my gawky looks, my discount store clothes, my lack of friends.
That night, and others like it, I lay in bed and imagined who I’d be if my mother had married someone handsome and popular like Dick Moore, the PE teacher, or Smiley Swenson, who drove stock cars at the county fair, or even Mr. Rasmussen. Years before, my mother had told me how she met my father. A girl who worked with her at Woolworth’s had asked her if she wanted to go out with a friend of her boyfriend’s, an army man just back from the war. My mother had never agreed to a blind date before, or dated an older man, but for some reason this time she said yes. Lying there, I thought about that fateful moment. It seemed so fragile— she could as easily have said no and changed everything—and I wished, then, that she had said no, I wished she’d said she didn’t date strangers or she already had a date or she was going out of town—anything to alter the chance conjunction that would eventually produce me.
I know now that there was something suicidal about my desire to undo my parentage, but then I knew only that I wanted to be someone else. And I blamed my father for that wish. If I’d had a different father, I reasoned, I would be better looking, happier, more popular. When I looked in the mirror and saw my father’s thin face, his rust-red hair, downturned mouth, and bulging Adam’s apple, I didn’t know who I hated more, him or me. That winter I began parting my hair on the right instead of the left, as my father did, and whenever the house was empty I worked on changing my voice, practicing the inflections and accents of my classmates’ fathers as if they were clues to a new life. I did not think, then, that my father knew how I felt about him, but now that I have a son of my own, a son almost as old as I was then, I know different.
If I had known what my father was going through that winter, maybe I wouldn’t have treated him so badly. But I didn’t know anything until the January morning of his breakdown. I woke that morning to the sound of voices downstairs in the kitchen. At first I thought the sound was the wind rasping in the bare branches of the cottonwood outside my window, then I thought it was the radio. But after I lay there a moment I recognized my parents’ voices. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but I knew they were arguing. They’d been arguing more than usual lately, and I hated it—not so much because I wanted them to be happy, though I did, but because I knew they’d take their anger out on me, snapping at me, telling me to chew with my mouth closed, asking me who gave me permission to put my feet up on the coffee table, ordering me to clean my room. I buried one ear in my pillow and covered the other with my blankets, but I could still hear them. They sounded distant, yet somehow close, like the sea crashing in a shell held to the ear. But after a while I couldn’t hear even the muffled sound of their voices, and I sat up in the bars of gray light slanting through the blinds and listened to the quiet. I didn’t know what was worse: their arguments or their silences. I sat there, barely breathing, waiting for some noise.
Finally I heard the back door bang shut and, a moment later, the Chevy cough to life. Only then did I dare get out of bed. Crossing to the window, I raised one slat of the blinds with a finger and saw, in the dim light, the driveway drifted shut with snow. Then my father came out of the garage and began shoveling, scooping the snow furiously and flinging it over his shoulder, as if each shovelful were a continuation of the argument. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew that it was red and that he was probably cursing under his breath. As he shoveled, the wind scuffed the drifts around him, swirling the snow into his eyes, but he didn’t stop or set his back to the wind. He just kept shoveling fiercely, and suddenly it occurred to me that he might have a heart attack, just as my friend Rob’s father had the winter before. For an instant I saw him slump over his shovel, then collapse face-first into the snow. As soon as this thought came to me, I did my best to convince myself that it arose from love and terror, but even then I knew part of me wished his death, and that knowledge went through me like a chill.
I lowered the slat on the blinds and got back into bed. The house was quiet but not peaceful. I knew that somewhere in the silence my mother was crying and I thought about going to comfort her, but I didn’t. After a while I heard my father rev the engine and back the Chevy down the driveway. Still I didn’t get up. And when my mother finally came to tell me it was time to get ready, her eyes and nose red and puffy, I told her I wasn’t feeling well and wanted to stay home. Normally she would have felt my forehead and cross-examined me about my symptoms, but that day I knew she’d be too upset to bother. “Okay, Danny,” she said. “Call me if you think you need to see a doctor.” And that was it. She shut the door and a few minutes later I heard the whine of the Studebaker’s cold engine, and then she was gone.
It wasn’t long after my mother left that my father came home. I was lying on the couch in the living room watching TV when I heard a car pull into the driveway. At first I thought my mother had changed her mind and come back to take me to school. But then the back door sprang open and I heard him. It was a sound I had never heard before, and since have heard only in my dreams, a sound that will make me sit up in the thick dark, my eyes open to nothing and my breath panting. I don’t know how to explain it, other than to say that it was a kind of crazy language, like speaking in tongues. It sounded as if he were crying and talking at the same time, and in some strange way his words had become half-sobs and his sobs something more than words—or words turned inside out, so that only their emotion and not their meaning came through. It scared me. I knew something terrible had happened, and I didn’t know what to do. I wanted to go to him and ask what was wrong, but I didn’t dare. I switched off the sound on the TV so he wouldn’t know I was home and sat there staring at the actors mouthing their lines. But then I couldn’t stand it anymore and I got up and ran down the hall to the kitchen. There, in the middle of the room, wearing his Goodyear jacket and work clothes, was my father. He was on his hands and knees, his head hanging as though it were too heavy to support, and he was rocking back and forth and babbling in a rhythmic stutter. It’s funny, but the first thing I thought when I saw him like that was the way he used to give me rides on his back, when I was little, bucking and neighing like a horse. And as soon as I thought it, I felt my heart lurch in my chest. “Dad?” I said. “What’s wrong?” But he didn’t hear me. I went over to him then. “Dad?” I said again, and touched him on the shoulder. He jerked at the touch and looked up at me, his lips moving but no sounds coming out of them now. His forehead was knotted and his eyes were red, almost raw-looking. He swallowed hard and for the first time spoke words I could recognize, though I did not understand them until years later, when I was myself a father.
“Danny,” he said. “Save me.”
Before I could finish dialing the school lunchroom’s number, my mother pulled into the driveway. Looking out the window, I saw her jump out of the car and run up the slick sidewalk, her camel- colored overcoat open and flapping in the wind. For a moment I was confused. Had I already called her? How much time had passed since I found my father on the kitchen floor? A minute? An hour? Then I realized that someone else must have told her something was wrong.
She burst in the back door then and called out, “Bill? Bill? Are you here?”
“Mom,” I said, “Dad’s—” and then I didn’t know how to finish the sentence.
She came in the kitchen without stopping to remove her galoshes. “Oh, Bill,” she said when she saw us, “are you all right?”
My father was sitting at the kitchen table now, his hands fluttering in his lap. A few moments before, I had helped him to his feet and, draping his arm over my shoulders, led him to the table like a wounded man.
“Helen,” he said. “It’s you.” He said it as if he hadn’t seen her for years.
My mother went over and knelt beside him. “I’m so sorry,” she said, but whether that statement was born of sorrow over something she had said or done or whether she just simply and guiltlessly wished he weren’t suffering, I never knew. Taking his hands in hers, she added, “There’s nothing to worry about. Everything’s going to be fine.” Then she turned to me. Her brown hair was wind-blown, and her face was so pale the smudges of rouge on her cheeks looked like bruises. “Danny,” she said, “I want you to leave us alone for a few minutes.”
I looked at her red-rimmed eyes and tight lips. “Okay,” I said, and went back to the living room. There, I sat on the sagging couch and stared at the television, the actors’ mouths moving wordlessly, their laughs eerily silent. I could hear my parents talking, their steady murmur broken from time to time by my father sobbing and my mother saying “Bill” over and over, in the tone mothers use to calm their babies, but I couldn’t hear enough of what they said to know what had happened. And I didn’t want to know either. I wanted them to be as silent as the people on the TV, I wanted all the words to stop, all the crying.
I lay down and closed my eyes, trying to drive the picture of my father on the kitchen floor out of my head. My heart was beating so hard I could feel my pulse tick in my throat. I was worried about my father but I was also angry that he was acting so strange. It didn’t seem fair that I had to have a father like that. I’d never seen anybody else’s father act that way, not even in a movie.
Outside, the wind shook the evergreens and every now and then a gust would rattle the windowpane. I lay there a long time, listening to the wind, until my heart stopped beating so hard.
Some time later, my mother came into the room and sat on the edge of the chair under the sunburst mirror. Her forehead was creased, and there were black mascara streaks on her cheeks. Leaning toward me, her hands clasped, she bit her lip, then said, “I just wanted to tell you not to worry. Everything’s going to be all right.” Her breath snagged on the last word, and I could hear her swallowing.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
She opened her mouth as if she were about to answer, but suddenly her eyes began to tear. “We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “After the doctor’s come. Just don’t worry, okay? I’ll explain everything.”
“The doctor?” I said.
“I’ll explain later,” she answered.
Then she left and I didn’t hear anything more until ten or fifteen minutes had passed and the doorbell rang. My mother ran to the door and opened it, and I heard her say, “Thank you for coming so quickly. He’s in the kitchen.” As they hurried down the hall past the living room, I caught a glimpse of Dr. Lewis and his black leather bag. It had been years since the doctors in our town, small as it was, made house calls, so I knew now that my father’s problem was something truly serious. The word emergency came into my mind, and though I tried to push it out, it kept coming back.
For the next half hour or so, I stayed in the living room, listening to the droning sound of Dr. Lewis and my parents talking. I still didn’t know what had happened or why. All I knew was that my father was somebody else now, somebody I didn’t know. I tried to reconcile the man who used to read to me at night when my mother was too tired, the man who patiently taught me how to measure and cut plywood for a birdhouse, even the man whose cheeks twitched when he was angry at me and whose silences were suffocating, with the man I had just seen crouched like an animal on the kitchen floor babbling some incomprehensible language. But I couldn’t. And though I felt sorry for him and his suffering, I felt as much shame as sympathy. This is your father, I told myself. This is you when you’re older.
It wasn’t until after Dr. Lewis had left and my father had taken the tranquilizers and gone upstairs to bed that my mother came back into the living room, sat down on the couch beside me, and told me what had happened. “Your father,” she began, and her voice cracked. Then she controlled herself and said, “Your father has been fired from his job.”
I looked at her. “Is that it?” I said. “That’s what all this fuss is about?” I couldn’t believe he’d put us through all this for something so unimportant. All he had to do was get a new job. What was the big deal?
“Let me explain,” my mother said. “He was fired some time ago. Ten days ago, to be exact. But he hadn’t said anything to me about it, and he just kept on getting up and going down to work every morning, like nothing had happened. And every day Mr. Siverhus told him to leave, and after arguing a while, he’d go. Then he’d spend the rest of the day driving around until quitting time, when he’d finally come home. But Mr. Siverhus got fed up and changed the locks, and when your father came to work today he couldn’t get in. He tried all three entrances, and when he found his key didn’t work in any of them, well, he threw a trash barrel through the showroom window and went inside.”
She paused for a moment, I think to see how I was taking this. I was trying to picture my father throwing a barrel through that huge, expensive window. It wasn’t easy to imagine. Even at his most angry, he had never been violent. He had never even threatened to hit me or my mother. But now he’d broken a window, and the law.
My mother went on. “Then when he was inside, he found that Mr. Siverhus had changed the lock on his office too, so he kicked the door in. When Mr. Siverhus came to work, he found your dad sitting at his desk, going over service accounts.” Her lips started to tremble. “He could have called the police,” she said, “but he called me instead. We owe him for that.”
That’s the story my mother told me. Though I was to find out later that she hadn’t told me the entire truth, she had told me enough of it to make me realize that my father had gone crazy. Something in him—whatever slender idea or feeling it is that connects us to the world—had broken, and he was not in the world anymore, he was outside it, horribly outside it, and could not get back in no matter how he tried. Somehow I knew this, even then. And I wondered if someday the same thing would happen to me.
The rest of that day, I stayed downstairs, watching TV or reading Sports Illustrated or Life, while my father slept or rested. My mother sat beside his bed, reading her ladies magazines while he slept and talking to him whenever he woke, and every now and then she came downstairs to tell me he was doing fine. She spoke as if he had some temporary fever, some twenty-four-hour virus, that would be gone by morning.
But the next morning, a Saturday, my father was still not himself. He didn’t feel like coming down for breakfast, so she made him scrambled eggs, sausage, and toast and took it up to him on a tray. He hadn’t eaten since the previous morning, but when she came back down awhile later all the food was still on the tray. She didn’t say anything about the untouched meal; she just said my father wanted to talk to me.
“I can’t,” I said. “I’m eating.” I had one sausage patty and a few bites of scrambled egg left on my plate.
“Not this minute,” she said. “When you’re done.”
I looked out the window. It had been snowing all morning, and the evergreens in the backyard looked like flocked Christmas trees waiting for strings of colored lights. Some sparrows were flying in and out of the branches, chirping, and others were lined up on the crossbars of the clothesline poles, their feathers fluffed out and blowing in the wind.
“I’m supposed to meet Rob at his house,” I lied. “I’ll be late.”
“Danny,” she said, in a way that warned me not to make her say any more.
“All right,” I said, and I shoved my plate aside and got up. “But I don’t have much time.”
Upstairs, I stopped at my father’s closed door. Normally I would have walked right in, but that day I felt I should knock. I felt as if I were visiting a stranger. Even his room—I didn’t think of it as belonging to my mother anymore—seemed strange, somehow separate from the rest of the house.
When I knocked, my father said, “Is that you, Danny?” and I stepped inside. All the blinds were shut, and the dim air smelled like a thick, musty mixture of hair tonic and Aqua Velva. My father was sitting on the edge of his unmade bed, wearing his old brown robe, nubbled from years of washings, and maroon corduroy slippers. His face was blotchy, and his eyes were dark and pouched.
“Mom said you wanted to talk to me,” I said.
He touched a spot next to him on the bed. “Here. Sit down.”
I didn’t move. “I’ve got to go to Rob’s,” I said.
He cleared his throat and looked away. For a moment we were silent, and I could hear the heat register ticking.
“I just wanted to tell you to take good care of your mother,” he said then.
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. “What do you mean?”
He looked back at me, his gaze steady and empty, and I wondered how much of the way he was that moment was his medication and how much himself. “She needs someone to take care of her,” he said. “That’s all.”
“What about you? Aren’t you going to take care of her anymore?”
He cleared his throat again. “If I can.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Why are you doing this to us? What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on,” he answered. “That’s the problem. Not a thing is going on.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I don’t like it when you say things I can’t understand.”
“I don’t like it either,” he said. Then he added: “That wasn’t me yesterday. I want you to know that.”
“It sure looked like you. If it wasn’t you, who was it then?”
He stood up and walked across the carpet to the window. But he didn’t open the blinds; he just stood there, his back to me. “It’s all right for you to be mad,” he said.
“I’m not mad.”
“Don’t lie, Danny.”
“I’m not lying. I just like my father to use the English language when he talks to me, that’s all.”
For a long moment he was quiet. It seemed almost as if he’d forgotten I was in the room. Then he said, “My grandmother used to tell me there were exactly as many stars in the sky as there were people. If someone was born, there’d be a new star in the sky that night, and you could find it if you looked hard enough. And if someone died, you’d see that person’s star fall.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“People,” he answered. “Stars.”
Then he just stood there, staring at the blinds. I wondered if he was seeing stars there, or his grandmother, or what. And all of a sudden I felt my throat close up and my eyes start to sting. I was surprised—a moment before I’d been so angry, but now I was almost crying.
I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t. I wanted to know what was wrong, so I could know how to feel about it; I wanted to be sad or angry, either one, but not both at the same time. “What happened?” I finally said. “Tell me.”
He turned, but I wasn’t sure he’d heard me, because he didn’t answer for a long time. And when he did, he seemed to be answering some other question, one I hadn’t asked.
“I was so arrogant,” he said. “I thought my life would work out.”
I stood there looking at him. “I don’t understand.”
“I hope you never do,” he said. “I hope to God you never do.”
“Quit talking like that.”
“Like you’re so smart and everything. Like you’re above all of this when it’s you that’s causing it all.”
He looked down at the floor and shook his head slowly.
“Well?” I said. “Aren’t you going to say something?”
He looked up. “You’re a good boy, Danny. I’m proud of you. I wish I could be a better father for you.”
I hesitate now to say what I said next. But then I didn’t hesitate.
“So do I,” I said bitterly. “So the hell do I.” And I turned to leave.
“Danny, wait,” my father said.
But I didn’t wait. And when I shut the door, I shut it hard.
Two days later, after he took to fits of weeping and laughing, we drove my father to the VA hospital in Minneapolis. Dr. Lewis had already called the hospital and made arrangements for his admission, so we were quickly escorted to his room on the seventh floor, where the psychiatric patients were kept. I had expected the psych ward to be a dreary, prisonlike place with barred doors and gray, windowless walls, but if anything, it was cheerier than the rest of the hospital. There were sky blue walls in the hallway, hung here and there with watercolor landscapes the patients had painted, and sunny yellow walls in the rooms, and there was a brightly lit lounge with a TV, card tables, and a shelf full of board games, and even a crafts center where the patients could do decoupage, leatherwork, mosaics, and macramé. And the patients we saw looked so normal that I almost wondered whether we were in the right place. Most of them were older, probably veterans of the First World War, but a few were my father’s age or younger. The old ones were the friendliest, nodding their bald heads or waving their liver-spotted hands as we passed, but even those who only looked at us seemed pleasant or, at the least, not hostile.
I was relieved by what I saw but evidently my father was not, for his eyes still had the quicksilver shimmer of fear they’d had all during the drive from Glencoe. He sat stiffly in the wheelchair and looked at the floor passing between his feet as the big-boned nurse pushed him down the hall toward his room.
We were lucky, the nurse told us, chatting away in a strange accent, which I later learned was Czech. There had been only one private room left, and my father had gotten it. And it had a lovely view of the hospital grounds. Sometimes she herself would stand in front of that window and watch the snow fall on the birches and park benches. It was such a beautiful sight. She asked my father if that didn’t sound nice, but he didn’t answer.
Then she wheeled him into the room and parked the chair beside the white, starched-looking bed. My father hadn’t wanted to sit in the chair when we checked him in at the admissions desk, but now he didn’t show any desire to get out of it.
“Well, what do you think of your room, Mr. Conroy?” the nurse asked. My mother stood beside her, a handkerchief squeezed in her hand.
My father looked at the chrome railing on the bed, the stainless steel tray beside it, and the plastic-sealed water glasses on the tray. Then he looked at my mother and me.
“I suppose it’s where I should be,” he said.
During the five weeks my father was in the hospital, my mother drove to Minneapolis twice a week to visit him. Despite her urgings, I refused to go with her. I wanted to forget about my father, to erase him from my life. But I didn’t tell her that. I told her I couldn’t stand to see him in that awful place, and she felt sorry for me and let me stay home. But almost every time she came back, she’d have a gift for me from him: a postcard of Minnehaha Falls decoupaged onto a walnut plaque, a leather billfold with my initials burned into the cover, a belt decorated with turquoise and white beads. And a request: would I come see him that weekend? But I never went.
Glencoe was a small town, and like all small towns it was devoted to gossip. I knew my classmates had heard about my father—many of them had no doubt driven past Goodyear to see the broken window the way they’d drive past a body shop to see a car that had been totaled—but only Rob said anything. When he asked what had happened, I told him what Dr. Lewis had told me, that my father was just overworked and exhausted. Rob didn’t believe me any more than I believed Dr. Lewis, but he pretended to accept that explanation. I wasn’t sure if I liked him more for that pretense, or less.
It took a couple of weeks for the gossip to reach me. One day during lunch Rob told me that Todd Knutson, whose father was a mechanic at Goodyear, was telling everybody my father had been fired for embezzling. “I know it’s a dirty lie,” Rob said, “but some kids think he’s telling the truth, so you’d better do something.”
“Like what?” I said.
“Tell them the truth. Set the record straight.”
I looked at my friend’s earnest, acne-scarred face. As soon as he’d told me the rumor, I’d known it was true, and in my heart I had already convicted my father. But I didn’t want my best friend to know that. Perhaps I was worried that he would turn against me too and I’d be completely alone.
“You bet I will,” I said. “I’ll make him eat those words.”
But I had no intention of defending my father. I was already planning to go see Mr. Siverhus right after school and ask him, straight out, for the truth, so I could confront my father with the evidence and shame him the way he had shamed me. I was furious with him for making me even more of an outcast than I had been—I was the son of a criminal now—and I wanted to make him pay for it. All during my afternoon classes, I imagined going to see him at the hospital and telling him I knew his secret. He’d deny it at first, I was sure, but as soon as he saw I knew everything, he’d confess. He’d beg my forgiveness, swearing he’d never do anything to embarrass me or my mother again, but nothing he could say would make any difference— I’d just turn and walk away. And if I were called into court to testify against him, I’d take the stand and swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, my eyes steady on him all the while, watching him sit there beside his lawyer, his head hung, speechless.
I was angry at my mother too, because she hadn’t told me everything. But I didn’t realize until that afternoon, when I drove down to Goodyear to see Mr. Siverhus, just how much she hadn’t told me.
Mr. Siverhus was a tall, silver-haired man who looked more like a banker than the manager of a tire store. He was wearing a starched white shirt, a blue-and-gray striped tie with a silver tie tack, and iridescent sharkskin trousers, and when he shook my hand he smiled so hard his crow’s-feet almost hid his eyes. He led me into his small but meticulous office, closing the door on the smell of grease and the noise of impact wrenches removing lugs from wheels, and I blurted out my question before either of us even sat down.
“Who told you that?” he asked.
“My mother,” I answered. I figured he wouldn’t lie to me if he thought my mother had already told me the truth. Then I asked him again: “Is it true?”
Mr. Siverhus didn’t answer right away. Instead, he gestured toward a chair opposite his gray metal desk and waited until I sat in it. Then he pushed some carefully stacked papers aside, sat on the edge of the desk, and asked me how my father was doing. I didn’t really know—my mother kept saying he was getting better, but I wasn’t sure I could believe her. Still, I said, “Fine.”
He nodded. “I’m glad to hear that,” he said. “I’m really terribly sorry about everything that’s happened. I hope you and your mother know that.”
He wanted me to say something, but I didn’t. Standing up, he wandered over to the gray file cabinet and looked out the window at the showroom, where the new tires and batteries were on display. He sighed, and I knew he didn’t want to be having this conversation.
“What your mother told you is true,” he said then. “Bill was taking money. Not much, you understand, but enough that it soon became obvious we had a problem. After some investigating, we found out he was the one. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Your father had been a loyal and hardworking employee for years, and he was the last person I would’ve expected to be stealing from us. But when we confronted him with it, he admitted it. He’d been having trouble making his mortgage payments, he said, and in a weak moment he’d taken some money and, later on, a little more. He seemed genuinely sorry about it and he swore he’d pay back every cent, so we gave him another chance.”
“But he did it again, didn’t he?” I said.
I don’t know if Mr. Siverhus noticed the anger shaking my voice or not. He just looked at me and let out a slow breath. “Yes,” he said sadly. “He did. And so I had to fire him. I told him we wouldn’t prosecute if he returned the money, and he promised he would.”
Then he went behind his desk and sat down heavily in his chair. “I hope you understand.”
“I’m not blaming you,” I said. “You didn’t do anything wrong.”
He leaned over the desk toward me. “I appreciate that,” he said. “You don’t know how badly I’ve felt about all of this. I keep thinking that maybe I should have handled it differently. I don’t know, when I think that he might have taken his life because of this, well, I—”
“Taken his life?” I interrupted.
Mr. Siverhus sat back in his chair. “Your mother didn’t tell you?”
I shook my head and closed my eyes for a second. I felt as if something had broken loose in my chest and risen into my throat, making it hard to breathe, to think.
“I assumed you knew,” he said. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Tell me,” I said.
“I think you’d better talk to your mother about this, Danny. I don’t think I should be the one to tell you.”
“I need to know,” I said.
Mr. Siverhus looked at me for a long moment. Then he said, “Very well. But you have to realize that your father was under a lot of stress. I’m sure that by the time he gets out of the hospital, he’ll be back to normal, and you won’t ever have to worry about him getting like that again.”
I nodded. I didn’t believe him, but I wanted him to go on.
Mr. Siverhus took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “When I came to work that morning and found your father in his office, he had a gun in his hand. A revolver. At first, I thought he was going to shoot me. But then he put it up to his own head. I tell you, I was scared. ‘Bill,’ I said, ‘that’s not the answer.’ And then I just kept talking. It took me ten or fifteen minutes to get him to put the gun down. Then he left, and that’s when I called your mother.”
I must have had a strange look on my face because the next thing he said was, “Are you all right?”
I nodded, but I wasn’t all right. I felt woozy, as if I’d just discovered another world inside this one, a world that made this one false. I wanted to leave, but I wasn’t sure I could stand up. Then I did.
“Thank you, Mr. Siverhus,” I said, and reached out to shake his hand. I wanted to say more but there was nothing to say. I turned and left.
Outside in the parking lot, I stood beside the Chevy, looking at the new showroom window and breathing in the cold. I was thinking how, only a few months before, I had been looking through my father’s dresser for his old army uniform, which I wanted to wear to Rob’s Halloween party, and I’d found the revolver tucked under his dress khakis in the bottom drawer. My father had always been full of warnings—don’t mow the lawn barefoot, never go swimming in a river, always drive defensively— but he had never even mentioned he owned this gun, much less warned me not to touch it. I wondered why, and I held the gun up to the light, as if I could somehow see through it to an understanding of its meaning. But I couldn’t—or at least I refused to believe that I could—and I put it back exactly where I found it and never mentioned it to anyone.
I didn’t tell my mother what I had learned from Mr. Siverhus, and I didn’t tell anyone else either. After dinner that night I went straight to my room and stayed there. I wanted to be alone, to figure things out, but the more I thought, the more I didn’t know what to think. I wondered if it was starting already, if I was already going crazy like my father, because I wasn’t sure who I was or what I felt. It had been a long time since I’d prayed, but that night I prayed that when I woke the next day everything would make sense again.
But the next morning I was still in a daze. Everything seemed so false, so disconnected from the real world I had glimpsed the day before, that I felt disoriented, almost dizzy. At school, the chatter of my classmates sounded as meaningless as my father’s babble, and everything I saw seemed out of focus, distorted, the way things do just before you faint. Walking down the hall, I saw Todd Knutson standing by his locker, talking with Bonnie Zempel, a friend of Molly Rasmussen’s, and suddenly I found myself walking up to them. I didn’t know what I was going to say or do, I hadn’t planned anything, and when I shoved Todd against his locker, it surprised me as much as it did him.
“I hope you’re happy now,” I said to him. “My father died last night.” I’m not sure I can explain it now, but in a way I believed what I was saying, and my voice shook with a genuine grief.
Todd slowly lowered his fists. “What?” he said, and looked quickly at Bonnie’s startled, open face.
“He had cancer,” I said, biting down on the word to keep my mind from whirling. “A tumor on his brain. That’s why he did the things he did, taking that money and breaking that window and everything. He couldn’t help it.”
And then my grief was too much for me, and I turned and strode down the hall, tears coming into my eyes. I waited until I was around the corner and out of their sight, then I started running, as fast as I could. Only then did I come back into the world and wonder what I had done.
That afternoon, my mother appeared at the door of my algebra class in her blue uniform and black hair net. At first I thought she was going to embarrass me by waving at me, as she often did when she happened to pass one of my classrooms, but then I saw the look on her face. “Excuse me, Mr. Laughlin,” she said grimly, “I’m sorry to interrupt your class but I need to speak with my son for a moment.”
Mr. Laughlin turned his dour face from the blackboard, his stick of chalk suspended in mid-calculation, and said, “Certainly, Mrs. Conroy. I hope there’s nothing the matter.”
“No,” she said. “It’s nothing to worry about.”
But out in the hall, she slapped my face hard.
“How dare you say your father is dead,” she said through clenched teeth. Her gray eyes were flinty and narrow.
“I didn’t,” I answered.
She raised her hand and slapped me again, even harder this time.
“Don’t you lie to me, Daniel.”
I started to cry. “Well, I wish he was,” I said. “I wish he was dead, so all of this could be over.”
My mother raised her hand again, but then she let it fall. “Go,” she said. “Get away from me. I can’t bear to look at you another minute.”
I went back into the classroom and sat down. I felt awful about hurting my mother, but not so awful that I wasn’t worried whether my classmates had heard her slap me or noticed my burning cheek. I saw them looking at me and shaking their heads, heard them whispering and laughing under their breath, and I stood up, my head roiling, and asked if I could be excused.
Mr. Laughlin looked at me. Then, without even asking what was wrong, he wrote out a pass to the nurse’s office and handed it to me. As I left the room, I heard him say to the class, “That’s enough. If I hear one more remark . . .”
Later, lying on a cot in the nurse’s office, my hands folded over my chest, I closed my eyes and imagined I was dead and my parents and classmates were kneeling before my open coffin, their heads bowed in mourning.
After that day, my mother scheduled meetings for me with Father Ondahl, our priest, and Mr. Jenseth, the school counselor. She said she hoped they could help me through this difficult time, then added, “Obviously, I can’t.” I saw Father Ondahl two or three times, and as soon as I assured him that I still had my faith, though I did not, he said I’d be better off just seeing Mr. Jenseth from then on. I saw Mr. Jenseth three times a week for the next month, then once a week for the rest of the school year. I’m not sure how those meetings helped, or even if they did. All I know is that, in time, my feelings about my father, and about myself, changed.
My mother continued her visits to my father, but she no longer asked me to go along with her, and when she came home from seeing him, she waited until I asked before she’d tell me how he was. I wondered whether she’d told him I was seeing a counselor, and why, but I didn’t dare ask. And I wondered if she’d ever forgive me for my terrible lie.
Then one day, without telling me beforehand, she returned from Minneapolis with my father. “Danny,” she called, and I came out of the living room and saw them in the entryway. My father was stamping the snow off his black wingtips, and he had a suitcase in one hand and a watercolor of our house in the other, the windows yellow with light and a thin swirl of gray smoke rising from the red brick chimney. He looked pale and even thinner than I remembered. I was so surprised to see him, all I could say was, “You’re home.”
“That’s right,” he said, and put down the suitcase and painting. “The old man’s back.” Then he tried to smile, but it came out more like a wince. I knew he wanted me to hug him and say how happy I was to see him, and part of me wanted to do that, too. But I didn’t. I just shook his hand as I would have an uncle’s or a stranger’s, then picked up the painting and looked at it.
“This is nice,” I said. “Real nice.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he answered.
And then we just stood there until my mother said, “Well, let’s get you unpacked, dear, and then we can all sit down and talk.” Despite everything that had happened, our life together after that winter was relatively peaceful. My father got a job at Firestone, and though for years he barely made enough to meet expenses, eventually he worked his way up to assistant manager and earned a good living. He occasionally lost his temper and succumbed to self-pity as he always had, but for the rest of his life, he was as normal and sane as anybody. Perhaps Dr. Lewis had been right after all, and all my father had needed was a good rest. In any case, by the time I was grown and married myself, his breakdown seemed a strange and impossible dream and I wondered, as I watched him play with my infant son, if I hadn’t imagined some of it. It amazed me that a life could break so utterly, then mend itself.
But of course it had not mended entirely, as my life had also not mended entirely. There was a barrier between us, the thin but indestructible memory of what we had been to each other that winter. I was never sure just how much he knew about the way I’d felt about him then, or even whether my mother had told him my lie about his death, but I knew he was aware that I hadn’t been a good son. Perhaps the barrier between us could have been broken with a single word—the word love or its synonym forgive—but as if by mutual pact we never spoke of that difficult winter or its consequences.
Only once did we come close to discussing it. He and my mother had come to visit me and my family in Minneapolis, and we had just finished our Sunday dinner. Caroline and my mother were clearing the table, Sam was playing on the kitchen floor with the dump truck my parents had bought him for his birthday, and my father and I were sitting in the living room watching “Sixty Minutes.” The black pastor of a Pentecostal church in Texas was talking to Morley Safer about “the Spirit that descends upon us and inhabits our hearts.” Then the camera cut to a black woman standing in the midst of a clapping congregation, her eyes tightly closed and her face glowing with sweat as she rocked back and forth, speaking the incoherent language of angels or demons. Her syllables rose and fell, then mounted in a syntax of spiraling rapture until finally, overcome by the voice that had spoken through her, she sank to her knees, trembling, her eyes open and glistening. The congregation clapped harder then, some of them leaping and dancing as if their bodies were lifted by the collapse of hers, and they yelled, “Praise God!” and “Praise the Lord God Almighty!”
I glanced at my father, who sat watching this with a blank face, and wondered what he was thinking. Then, when the camera moved to another Pentecostal minister discussing a transcript of the woman’s speech, a transcript he claimed contained variations on ancient Hebrew and Aramaic words she couldn’t possibly have known, I turned to him and asked, in a hesitant way, whether he wanted to keep watching or change channels.
My father’s milky blue eyes looked blurred, as if he were looking at something a long way off, and he cleared his throat before he spoke. “It’s up to you,” he said. “Do you want to watch it?”
I paused. Then I said, “No,” and changed the channel.
Perhaps if I had said yes, we might have talked about that terrible day he put a gun to his head and I could have told him what I had since grown to realize—that I loved him. That I had always loved him, though behind his back, without letting him know it. And, in a way, behind my back, too. But I didn’t say yes, and in the seven years that remained of his life, we never came as close to ending the winter that was always, for us, an unspoken but living part of our present.
That night, though, unable to sleep, I got up and went into my son’s room. Standing there in the wan glow of his night light, I listened to him breathe for a while, then quietly took down the railing we’d put on his bed to keep him from rolling off and hurting himself. Then I sat on the edge of the bed and began to stroke his soft, reddish blond hair. At first he didn’t wake, but his forehead wrinkled and he mumbled a little dream-sound.
I am not a religious man. I believe, as my father must have, the day he asked me to save him, that our children are our only salvation, their love our only redemption. And that night, when my son woke, frightened by the dark figure leaning over him, and started to cry, I picked him up and rocked him in my arms, comforting him as I would after a nightmare. “Don’t worry,” I told him over and over, until the words sounded as incomprehensible to me as they must have to him, “it’s only a dream. Everything’s going to be all right. Don’t worry.”
*Licensed from Press53, LLC. Copyright 2018 by Glossolalia by David Jauss
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