It was sunny and pleasant when I pulled up to the old man’s trailer. Unseasonably warm for early November. Leaves still clung to the trees, or skittered across the street and stuffed themselves into the grassy little corners of unkempt lawns.
“This can’t be it,” I muttered, staring at the Toyota in the driveway.
I circled the block several times, checking off the possibles. Run down tin-can housing with rusting beaters broken down in the driveways. I checked my directions again; five years old and given to me third hand.
The trailers behind the harness track.
I shoved the Jeep into park. I felt my pulse quicken. For a moment I was back in Ranger School. I thought about the forty foot beam, and my mortal terror of heights. I yanked the keys out of the ignition and walked around to the front.
It took a few moments for him to open the door. I had my back turned when I heard the hinges creak. He said nothing at first. He didn’t recognize me.
“Can I help you?”
There was irritation in his voice. I may as well have been holding a vacuum cleaner.
“You don’t recognize your own son . . . ?”
“And . . . ? What do you want?”
It took me ten years to work up the nerve to put myself on his doorstep. To work out enough of the anger to make it that far into the conversation without hitting him square in the mouth. I looked away to stifle the tide of anger rising in the pit of my belly. I had prepared myself for anything but indifference.
He looked old. His hair was shock white and thinning. My father had always been a skinny man. His face and belly had bloated. I barely recognized him.
“Did you come here for hostility?”
“No,” I lied. “If I did, you’d already be unconscious . . . .”
“Is that so?” he shot back.
“Yeah. It is. You couldn’t stop me with a fuckin’ missile.”
I stared up at him. The pause felt exponentially longer than it was.
“ . . . I’m not here for that.”
“Then why are you here? What did you-. . . Why did you come here? How long has it been, and now you just show up here . . . ?”
I hadn’t planned this far ahead. The sequence playing out in my head involved me breaking his jaw. The old man was asking me uncomfortable questions that I had no answer to.
“All this time and you’ve got nothing to say to me?”
My mouth was dry. My voice low and raspy. This wasn’t going like I expected. I stepped down off the porch, looking anywhere but at him. The sight of his face was almost unbearable. I was about to walk away. I thought about everything it had taken to put me on that doorstep. I stopped and looked up at him.
“I’m leaving for Afghanistan. I thought you should know.”
There was a noise from inside the house. He leaned back into the doorway.
“It’s my kid . . . ”
It must have been the German bitch. Number four. She had never met me. Probably didn’t even know what I looked like. I was fine with that arrangement. He stepped out onto the little porch and shut the door behind him. We stood there, sharing a long and painful silence. It was one of the only things we had ever shared.
“That’s it? You came all the way here just to tell me that?”
“Yeah . . . I did.”
“Been there. Done that.”
I wanted to hit him. I wanted to grab him and throttle him back through that shitty aluminum door into his ugly little living room. I wanted to beat him in front of his wife. The door opened behind him. She poked her head out.
“Go back inside and shut the door. This doesn’t concern you . . . “ I commanded. I glared at her.
“I just thought maybe you’d want to come inside . . . ”
“No . . . ”
She lingered a moment, confused. I didn’t raise my voice, but the sharpness of my response startled her. She retreated. He looked at me, irritated.
“Don’t talk to my wife like that . . . ”
There was no conviction in his voice.
“I was being civil . . . ”
I stared at him. He sat down on his steps and looked back at me. For a moment, the fight went out of me. He wasn’t my father at all – just a sad old man. I realized then that there was nothing between us but my hatred and his loneliness. All of his children had rejected him. His first three wives rejected him. When his mother died, his own father rejected him. He was orphaned at age five. How much worse could I really make things?
“You can drop the armor,” he said.
“No,” I replied. “I can’t.”
We talked for a while, with stops and starts. The conversation went nowhere. I was there looking for validation. He was begging for pity. We were asking the impossible of each other. I told him he would never see me again.
I knew that any attempt at reconciliation was a waste of time. He isn’t capable. Secretly, I hoped that he would beam with pride just a little. That just once I would see that I had reached him. All I saw was resignation.
I took the back roads home. I needed to be alone.