Fred

It’s impossible to let someone know who my Dad and Mom were. My wife, M, who never met Dad kindly asks about him. I try to give a corner puzzle piece but humans are complicated, contradictory beings. It hurts that I can’t be the doorway between these two people in my life. I can never share a complete picture of Dad and I can never go back in time and introduce Dad to my new girlfriend. In spite of, or perhaps because of that impossibility, I try. I try to tell M everything I can about Dad. 

It would be my honor to make the same attempt here. This is a short series built on my experiences, family lore, and imagination that I hope provides a glimpse at this person who remains a support beam of my life. Happy Father's Day, my friends. 

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One 

I am kneeling at the little faux wood coffee table wearing my best puffy paint tee / leggings combo. The TV is cueing the Wheel of Fortune theme and Mom is finishing steaks in the broiler. I’m squirming with delight on the carpeted den floor as my Dad shows me how he writes his signature. A scribbly abstract line with only F, T and C recognizable. He garnishes with a randomly placed dot “for the i.”

He tells me everyone has a distinct way of signing their name, especially artists. I am enamored with the process of defining my autograph, something that is only mine — evidence that I am individual. I stare up at the popcorn glitter ceiling and imagine the signing opportunities adulthood will bring.

There is practice to be done and a master to learn the craft from. I pick the orange washable fine tip marker and get started.

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Two

The family is at Ruby Tuesday’s. I am surrounded by junk nailed to the walls. A waitress hustles passed us as we open laminated menus with photographs that make promises we know won’t be fulfilled. My feet dangle and I can barely see above the booth divider glass. Dad shuts his menu (I know it will be the burger medium rare, a slab of raw onion). He takes off his SUNY college ring and inspects it. 

The ring is bulky: center ruby for his January birthday, deep engraving and beveling with names and dates that I see only as symbols — the ring predates my ability to read. Dad uses the ring as a toy, perfecting his drop-n-spin techniques. I’m hypnotized as he snaps the ring and sends it to the paper placemat in front of me. He describes the centrifugal force that brings the weighty ruby to the top.

But all I hear is the solid crsvvvvvvssshhhhh of a tight pirouette and then the slowing hollow woosp woosp woosp as it wobbles to a stop. 

Many times the ring falls to the floor and is recovered by a kind booth neighbor. Dad slips it back on as the waitress brings four plastic glasses of water to the table. 

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Three

Fred and Larry — practically twins — are once again spending the weekend at their Nana's. Larry openly distrusts the strict, compact woman. Fred agrees to win his big brother's approval, though he secretly loves going to the house. Yes, the food is dry and the smell of the house is sour, but Nana's is where The Mural lives.

Last summer in an uncharacteristic surprise for the boys, Nana commissioned a high school student to paint a wall-sized mural in the guest room. The mural shows a cowboy on horse-back stopped in front of a deep canyon. On the far side stands another man on horseback. They two are locked in a stare-down. Art they friends? Enemies? Who is the good guy? How will they cross the divide? Art they parting of reuniting? The mural reveals a new narrative every visit. Fred yearns to study it again and again to find a hint. Some nuance of body language or frozen facial tick made infinitely harder to read by their amateur execution.

The day Nana sells the house and moves in with her daughter, Fred mourns the loss of his first mystery.

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Four

Dad and I are at Domenic’s Tavern, a dark joint recently upgraded from seedy local shit hole to profitable sports bar with nightly parking lot fist-fights. This is where Dad comes to play pool and be unextraordinary. At Dom’s he is not a suit.

It’s crowded this Saturday night and everyone seems happy to see Fred. The air smells like Wild Turkey and aluminum kegs. The low light comes from green glass overhanging the pool table. Dad puts a pile of four quarters on the corner pocket ledge to call the next game. 

“Hey Steve! Jason! You playing?” Dad asks, smiling and shaking hands with the brothers. Both are regional hockey players with a twenty-year age difference, looking rough but generous with Dad. Puffed-chested, the brothers come ambling toward me as my self-preservation instincts kick up.

“Yeah of course! And this round’s on you, right?”
Dad introduces me and moves to a clear spot the get the bartender’s attention.

“No shit. You're Kath-a-leen? The Arteest in the big apple?” Steve asks with a grin that idles between menacing and friendly.

“Your dad is fucking killer at pool but he won’t join the Dom’s team. We go to Vegas to compete. We need decent guys like Fred,” Janson spouts, bouncing on his heels. I shrug in response. 

“Your daddy’s a good one. You know? — he talks about you all the time. You got some fancy job in New York, huh? Yeah we know all about it.” Steve doesn't wait for my answers.

I feel relieved Dad has friends, embarrassed to be living in New York, worried he’ll have an off night trying to impress me. Dad joins the circle with shots and cheers to Dom’s congregation. His praise and affection are a coveted prize even among the barflies. 

I can’t bear to disappoint him so I pick up a pool stick and agree to play teams.

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Five

Fred travels on 95 South at exactly 4 miles over the posted limit — enough to be in the flow of traffic but avoid getting pulled over. It’s early winter so the driver’s window of the Honda is cracked to blow out cigar smoke. Fred reaches for the mug of coffee — it’s late — after 11pm on a Tuesday and he’ll need to be up for work by 6.

Along 95 on Fred's far left, the Amtrak to DC noiselessly passes. He catches up with a Dodge missing a break light. The monster green signs show exits for Newark, Delaware. The monotony of any highway — he knows it well. 

Tonight Fred is on a special mission. He is equipped with a large tackle box of tools and work gloves for the job. He flicks the right blinker on and turns up the Muddy Waters album. His smile morphs into a yawn. Fred is on his way to help his college daughter change a flat tire. He wonders how many more times he’ll get to swoop in and rescue her like this again. The exhaustion he’ll wear tomorrow is for tomorrow.

Right now, he’s the Hero. 

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Six

I am in a tight hotel room in Downtown Brooklyn. The space is cramped but it’s the only place that allows dogs and Dad won’t stay overnight if Charley can’t come. The room is carpeted in EZ Cleen® panels and smells like flowery bleach alternative. My mother is loading her purse— a hefty burden she carries throughout the visit to New York. 

We will be late for our scheduled appointment to the 9-11 Memorial if we don’t leave right now and instead of checking for hotel keys and heading out, Dad grabs the paper and heads to the bathroom.

Christ.

I take a deep breath and try to stay calm and open, like my guided meditation practice has been telling me. They are visiting because they love me. Bring compassion. Be patient. It’s not working.

Goddamnit.

Charley jumps at my legs in the alleys surrounding the bed. There is nowhere to hide. The truth is that I want to meet up with friends and bike to an art exhibit. I want to be free to complain about my folks. The tension I feel is a tightness in my throat — it's a challenge not to check my phone. 

When we leave 20 minutes later we need to drive to make it to the Financial District by 3pm. My mood continues to vibrate with impatience. By the end of our day I hug them quickly so I can jump on my bike and leave.

My hasty goodbye is the last time my Dad ever hugs me, or says, "Love ya, Kiddo." The distance between that last embrace and the present moment will stretch longer and longer filling up the rest of my life; an impossible canyon to cross. 

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Seven

My Dad at this very moment is in a box small enough to fit a basketball player’s sneakers. The box is inside the TV entertainment cabinet in the den among DVDs and McCullough hardbacks. But I know he’s not there at all. Right now he’s in the rings on Mom’s dresser; he’s in the handkerchiefs I stole from his nightstand; he’s in his watch that Mom resized for me and I lost.

He’s encoded in half my DNA, I fear and hope I recognize him. He’s simulataneously no longer on Earth and also just working late at the office. The way he was somehow both "Dad" and "Fred." He’s in my desperate attempts to be non-judgemental, light-hearted, and relentlessly curious; an effort to activate his best qualities and continually falling short. 

He’s in these little flashes of familiarity that are so surprising my breath catches. He’s in moments and objects and fictitious memories — places I didn’t expect to run into him, because he is my Dad — frustrating, adoring, loving. The absence that still feels temporary. 

Kathleen Cunningham