Hunting for

Once, in my new life, my now life, when I had gone so far past my growing up, when I moved south to live, near the equator, years and years after leaving my dark home to the north, my father came to see me.

My father came to see me, there in the trailer park, in my old trailer, on the Playa Cula, overlooking the Sea of Mexico, and it was quite a surprise. I certainly didn't expect him to turn up here: my aloof, proud, patrician father, in his seersucker suit (1940s style), seersucker jacket, seersucker pants, his Phi Beta Kappa key joining the vest wings, his white shoes and black socks held up buy braces.

He flew in so suddenly, and unexpectedly; and the news he had was not all bad.

He turned up in the bathroom, of all places. He didn't care to go out to the public market, or the beach, certainly not to the Tonameca river, where we went every afternoon to lie in the calming waters, to watch the donkeys going past, the horses, and burros, the workers returning with their loads of straw, and their machetes.

My father came to confer with me, crowding in there with me in the tiny trailer bathroom, standing, peering at me over the sink --- the fifty-year-old face, with heavy lines down each side, between cheek and nose, and the down-turned mouth, the dimple in the chin, the dew-laps, the high forehead, the heavy upper lids (beginning to fold down with the weight of the ages). Even the glasses.

This was the first time I had seen him in fifty years, since the early fall, in 1950, in the Hotel St. Regis, in New York, and the doctor came out of the bedroom, and said, primly, drying his hands, "He is expired."

For the first time in all this time my father has left his hiding place and come to visit in our trailer there at the edge of the sea. A strange experience (I little expected it) but, if you think about it, his arrival was certainly no queerer than his sudden disappearance, so long ago.

He isn't grim. Far from it. He smiles from behind the pane, and I catch myself thinking that it's nice to have him back because, after all, while we were growing up together, he and I didn't have much of a chance to talk. He went off to work in his crisp blue-and-white seersucker suit, bow tie, black shoes and straw hat --- heading off for the office just as I was getting up. In the early evening, long after I had come home, he would appear and just as quickly disappear, on his way to a business meeting, or a dinner party. By the time he returned, I was asleep.

On weekends, when I woke up at eleven or so, he would have already gone to the office "to clean up a few odds and ends." Later that night, he would be in his room, deeply involved in the mysteries of Ellery Queen. I slipped by the door of his bedroom as quietly as possible. Two men, or a man and an almost man, in the same house, scarcely exchanging a word, except when he came to my room, as he did from time to time, to tell me I had stayed out too late at night, or that he had heard I was driving too fast, or that I was being sullen, not communicating. "My children never talk to me," he once complained to a friend. He meant that we didn't know what to say to him that hadn't already been said.

When they buried him I was a stranger at a stranger's funeral. I remember the stifling dark cathedral, filled with hundreds of people, and me, in my new dark suit, sweating, wondering if anyone knew that I didn't really belong there, at the front of the chapel, alongside the grieving family. I should have been somewhere else, perhaps waiting outside with the limousine drivers, or out on the streets, racing about with my friends.

And when we got home that evening, I remember being relieved that he wouldn't be there, calling me to some task (build the fire; get me a fifth of Wild Turkey out of the liquor closet; fetch my slippers). From now on, I was free: no longer would I have to polish his boots, work in his "Victory" Garden, trying to hide from his sharp, never-deceived eyes ("you missed that whole row over there") --- the hundred tasks assigned to me by him, tasks that did not represent love nor affection nor something shared --- but a job that he wanted done because he paid my bills and couldn't think of any other way to charge me.

And to avoid these tasks, I turned myself into a house-ghost, staying out of his way, running down the back stairs when he I heard him coming in the front, running to freedom before he found out that I wasn't there at all ("Where's that boy? I swear, he slips out of here and I never even see him!")

So when he disappeared, so suddenly, five decades ago, I thought I would never hear from him again. Yet here I wake up, thousands of miles from where he last walked this earth, and there he is, peering back at me, not unkindly, over the sink, as I am shaving, brushing my teeth, washing my armpits. I contemplate his visage in the glass and wonder at this sudden appearance?

It might be that I was given the chance to see another side of my father last night, as I was sitting up with my friends, telling lies before the fire, lies about love and drinking and parties and being young and filled with the fire of being young.

I didn't see the drudge attorney in a tall building downtown, the lonely man waiting impatiently for his lonely supper, a man alone in the bed upstairs, reading about murder. Rather, I get to see him at his weekend camp, on the Fernandina River, roughing it with his friends, in the small, drafty, clapboard cottage, wobbling as it does, on brick legs --- a place mostly verboten to womenfolk and children.

I was allowed there once, after I had reached a certain age, and I watched and wondered (is this my father?) as he and his buddies Gus Wilkins and Lou Fletcher and Billy Joe Lovett cooked up shrimp perloo, told stories, drank morning coffee laced with sour mash, having gotten up at four a.m. to hunt deer and quail in that rich North Florida loblolly pine country with the morning mist and the tiny fishing boats pushing by on the Fernandina river outside.

I remember best when they came back to the cabin after a morning in the blind --- raucous, laughing, "God, did you see that eight-pointer... " "Well, Herb told me that with a Double Ought Four you could ... from fifty yards away..." "Jesus, where did that buck come from..." And later, making a potato-rich fish chowder, piled with the scrappie and croaker we had pulled from the river in the late afternoon, eating with such gusto, telling stories, telling stories: "Tell them about the Navy wife, Bob ... you know, when you were working in the garden."

"You mean where I was in my old jersey and she drove up...

"Yah, that's it..."

"...and she thought I was the yardman, tried to hire me away. It was wartime, and help was hard to get, so I said to her, 'Waaalllll, I'd do it lady, I reckon, but the family, they let me live here.' And she says, 'Well, we can do that too, we have a servant's room in our house, and you're welcome to it.'"

And he pauses, and they are already starting to grin, and he says,

"'Lady --- I shud tell you: they let me eat with them, too.' An' she gulped, and thought for a minute --- help was awful hard to come by --- and so she said, a little nervous, 'Well, I guess we could...'

"'But the missus here,'" he said --- and Gus and Billy Joe and Lou are starting in to laugh, they've heard it, but they want to hear it again, and he wants to tell it again --- "'The missus in the house here. I shud tell you she lets me sleep with her, too.'" Great gouts of laughter, the cigar smoke rolling up on the Coleman lantern, its two hot nuts of fire, hanging down, the men weak with laughter, slapping their knees, and "Omigawd" and "Haw-haw," and then,

"Gus --- tell the one about you and Mary, when that lady from the church, came to your door ... you remember..." And I am watching them there (I have never seen my father laugh so hard before --- and those stories!), the four of them talking far into the night, the men, with their man's talk, and their freedom, to be alone with each other, and tell those wonderful lies.

--- From Rock Gardening in the Ukraine
Ignacio Schwartz

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