Finding Him Gone
He won most of his cases, but never spoke of them. He loved the New York Giants, and would strike the wall and cry out when they fumbled or missed another field goal. He drank vodka martinis, ordered them with “no vegetables.” He loved to read novels, especially by Robertson Davies. When he was eighteen, he fought in World War II. He had a square body, hands bunched into fists, freckles on his bald head, patches of hair on his fingers. He was married three times. He referred to himself as “Kerr,” his surname, and in his sixties, drove a bright red Porsche -- on the license plate: “King K.” He loved the opera, red-headed women, cigars; he hated commercials, homosexuals, and lies. He was my father.
He took a race car driving course once. He liked craps. He ate peanuts by throwing a handful into his mouth in one fierce stroke. He was a good listener. His black unruly eyebrows gave him a permanent scowl. He left my mother for another woman when I was eleven, didn’t say goodbye. He danced well. I told him I read Time once; he grunted with displeasure, then immediately apologized. He wrote a novel – it was never published, and he never shared it with me. For my birthdays, he bought me the biggest cards you could find; they didn’t fit into my post office box at college, had to be hand-delivered. All he wrote on them was a big ‘D’: Dad. He’s buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
He nicknamed me “Jennifee-fee,” then shortened it to “Fee.” He was rich. He said “burgled” instead of “burglarized.” “Is that a word?” I asked. He said, “Why not?” He called my mother “Boss.” “Tell me a story,” he said when I was sixteen, and I told him about my blonde prissy roommate who sat up in bed in the middle of the night and asked, “Where’s the key?”; he laughed softly. He loved the beach. He fell on his face on the dance floor from drinking too much at my brother’s wedding. His voice was scratchy. He smelled of ivory soap. He wanted to name me Carlotta, call me Carly; my mother said no way: he liked that about her. I dream of him sometimes.
These are the things I know about my father, and I go over them again and again. But it doesn’t stick. Because his handwriting wasn’t legible. Because he asked me to write him during my first year at college, and he never wrote back. Because I don’t have a clue what his parents looked like – there are no photographs. Because he never said goodbye the day he left my mother; he simply walked out of our house, and I came home to find him gone.
After he died, his secretary discovered a bond in my name, twelve years overdue, tucked away in his desk. Why didn’t he give it to me? He spoke to me of his father once, when I was seven: “My father loved hats,” he’d said. “He wore one to work each – “ His voice broke, and he ran from my bedroom, unable to finish, and I was left hungry and sad, needing to hear the rest of the story, needing to understand. But I never did.
Today, I had flowers delivered to his grave from California, flowers I will never see.
I, too, have patches of hair on my fingers, but my freckles dance across my cheeks. I have named one of my cats Fee, and she is my favorite. I no longer read Time. I try to be a good listener. My chicken-scratch handwriting is like my father’s; his widow has told me this twice, and I think, I know, I know. I dislike football. When I was eighteen, I was in a dorm room, writing down the song lyrics of Joan Armatrading and Suzanne Vega because they made sense. I drive a Honda Accord. I love novels: Robertson Davies is good, but Jane Austen is better. I don’t drink martinis. I live in Northern California, sixty miles north of my father’s alma mater. I went to college in New York, where he worked for forty three years as a lawyer. I am a writer.
Here, I have built this house again, for you, for me: this is who my father was; this is who I am. Today is September 1st. Nine years ago, my father died. Nine years. Fee. Private First Class. My father. Sometimes these words don’t make sense. But I say them over and over, and sometimes I can catch something of him, something indefinable, something beyond words.
Then he’s gone again.
There’s a photograph of my father and me on a beach in Fire Island. I am sitting on his forearm in diapers, knees tucked against his soft tummy. He wears sunglasses, and points ahead, arm stretching to the very edge of the frame. Our profiles are next to each other: my round, sunlit cheek superimposed onto his face like collage, his shielded eyes and beak nose in front. Swept by the same salt air, under the same sun, we’re looking at the same thing. We’re looking at whatever he’s pointing to. Maybe it’s a bird. A wave in the ocean. The horizon.
I keep this photograph next to my computer, the place I write, even though I can’t say what he’s showing me. Even though I can’t finish the story. Just as he couldn’t, speaking of his own father twenty-six years ago. But what am I to do with such a legacy?
I glance at the two of us, enclosed in the past by a gold frame. My father points and suddenly, I realize we’re different. For I cannot let our relationship break into silence. I cannot let it be. I find him gone over and over again, and I search repeatedly for the words to fill this void.