the sins of my father

My father was in town on business; he was an industrial painter. He did the dangerous toxic stuff that, now, is heavily regulated: he painted the insides of the gigantic chemical tanks down by the port, where things like gasoline are deposited by tanker ships before being doled out to trucks that distribute them to gas stations.

He was staying at a flophouse hotel, which had been grand once and now is grand again: the Floridan has a long interesting history. Part of it is mine by chance, I suppose, though he could have stayed somewhere else. Whenever I drove past it, downtown, I’d think of him. Wonder who he was.

I know enough, now, that I don’t want to know more.

He stayed on the move; he had a home base, of sorts, with his family in Indiana, but most of the time drove all over the Southeast for work. He kept moving. Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he laid his hat was his home — yeah, that’s how my mother explained it to me when I was small. “Listen to this song, your dad was like this.” I listened and, being at the time newly human and strangely literal, proclaimed, “He must have a big hat.”

And when he died, all he left us was alone.

I have two older half-brothers, I know that. I know their names, vaguely. I have photographs of them from the early eighties. I have no idea how many younger half-siblings I have, dear ol’ Dad being compelled by a purely evolutionary urge to wander, procreate, and then get the hell out of town before he was expected to help feed the offspring. So: somewhere I have two brothers. I don’t know them. I don’t think I ever will. I wonder about that, trying to fit theories into this blank space in my life. It doesn’t bother me. It just is: the sky is blue, water’s wet, wild Popes quit in the woods, I have some people out there somewhere that are genetically connected to me that have nothing to do with my life, and never have.

They never will, I’m sure.

I’d thought about contacting him for years. Decades. My whole life, since he left — rather, since I noticed he had failed to reappear, which took several years, because he wasn’t much of a presence in the first place. I don’t know what finally persuaded me to do it, really. My mother had kept the guy’s SSN and other bits of pertinent information; my friend Amber took those and the Lexis-Nexus database she used for work and it spat out an address. He was alive. He was in Ohio. Hilariously. He was in Dayton.

I’d flown into Dayton once. When Amber moved back to Florida she flew me up to Cincy and then we road-tripped it back down — but the funny thing is that my plane landed in Dayton less than a mile from the house the records claimed he’d owned for about thirteen years. When we drove out of Dayton it was a bleak day at the end of January; all I remember is dirty snow, empty houses, rusting snowplows and bulldozers on the side of the highway, and a Tom Waits song, all too appropriate. God said don’t give me your tin-horn prayers.

My parents met at a bus stop, late in the seventies, while he was painting and sleeping at the Floridan. They got to talking. My mother, reeling under the weight of mistreated mental illness that science wouldn’t get a handle on for another twenty years, told him that she was going to be in the hospital for a few days, and would he please feed her cat? My father said, later, that he’d thought she was on drugs. But he stayed at her place anyway, probably because that was cheaper than even a transient week-rates hotel in the decaying downtown of late-seventies Tampa. Nicer, too; she had air conditioning.

I happened a few years later. They never got married; they didn’t want to. When she came up pregnant, my mother considered the situation and found it good. She’d been married once before, and my father was a drinker, and with her mother — my grandmother — around, she was sure that the two of them could raise a child just fine without any paternal interference. The last thing they wanted was him coming home drunk and smashing shit up with a baby in the house. He wasn’t listed on my birth certificate because my mother refused to let an alcoholic have even a chance of custody. Smart move, that.

I didn’t see him often; he was enthusiastic about me as an idea, but once I was breathing on my own I think the reality of a child frightened him. So he kept moving. Came back every once in a while — I met one of my brothers, once — but he was gone more than he was there. That was normal for me. You can’t miss something you don’t feel the lack of. And he wasn’t a lack, wasn’t a hole in my life. He was just a person who appeared and blew back out, now and again.

It was a very long time before any of us realized we hadn’t heard from him and probably should have. The rest of my life he was a question I answered with a shrug: what about your dad? No idea. Oh, I’m sorry. Why be sorry, I don’t need him.

If he was worth it, I figure, he’d have stayed.

I’m not sure what led me to write him, a few months ago: curiosity, I suppose, and a strange lack of feeling. I’d gone through it all. I’d been mad, I’d been sad, I’d been frustrated. I’d coasted through all of those and found myself left with a vague curiosity. Who is this person? Someone I want in my life? The only thing I knew for sure was that a medical history might be nice, because there are some things wrong with me that I cannot figure out.

I wrote a letter, very neutral, slightly distant, more formal than familiar; I explained I’d found his information and decided to write to him. I wrote that if he wanted to reestablish contact, that was all right; I wrote that if he didn’t want to, I would respect that.

I got something back a few weeks later. My name scrawled on the front, no name or address on the back. There was a letter inside, hand-written: pencil on looseleaf lined paper. No signature. No identifying information whatsoever.

The anonymous letter-writer said they were sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but my father had passed away some eight years before, and his wife owned the house, renting it to the person who was writing. Bullshit, all of it; every source I researched confirms he’s alive. Enclosed in the envelope was what I’d sent out: my letter, and the envelope too. The message was clear: leave no evidence that I exist.

It arrived the day after Riley’s death. But, as always, my girl put it in perspective for me: this is love, and this is loss, and that packet of lies scrawled in pencil have nothing to do with me.

I don’t know who wrote it. Don’t much care to find out. A few friends have expressed interest in tracking him down and confronting him. I’ve told them, have at it, but if you do meet him face to face, tell him he’s a pathetic bastard, and then take a photograph of his face as soon as he realizes you’ve insulted him. If any of them ever do, I’m sure it’ll be hilarious.

What you do not realize, father of mine, is that you were never needed, never necessary, never missed. If this is what you are, I’ve been goddamned lucky to only know the lack of you.

There’s a killer and he’s coming through the rye
But maybe he’s the father of that lost little girl
It’s hard to tell in this light

And I want to know the same thing
Everyone wants to know: how’s it going to end?

I hope this is the end of it, that it’s all finished, that he plays dead until he stays dead. There’s enough skeletons rattling ’round already, and I’m not in the business of believing in resurrection.

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